Like many Brits, I came to tamarind via Worcestershire sauce, but have subsequently experienced it in South-East Asia and now cook with it in the professional kitchen.
Ripening tamarind fruit
Dried tamarind pods
Tamarind originates from Eastern Africa, but today is found growing all over the tropics.
Unripe fruits or the pulp of ripe pods.
Fabaceae (bean family).
Sour and tart.
Genus name tamarind and species indica are direct derivations from the Arabic tamr hindi "date of India" ("date" being a general name for the fruits of various palm trees), but tamarind neither stems from India nor is it related to palm trees. In spite of this deficiency, loan translations of this name have made their way into English "Indian date", German Indische dattel and Russian Indiyski finik. The term date itself came to English via Old Provençal datil and allegedly goes back to Greek daktylos "finger", a name motivated by shape resemblance of the seed pod to a digit.
Tamarind is the only important spice of African origin and today is also a valued food ingredient in many Asian and Latin American recipes.
The sour and fruity taste of tamarind blends well with the heat of chillies and gives many South Indian dishes their hot and sour character and dark colour. In India, tamarind is mostly combined with meat or legumes (lentils, chick peas or beans). The pulp is sold dry and must be soaked before use, with only the flavoured water then added to the food. Alternatively, tamarind extract may be used with the same effect.
A well-known example of a South Indian dish employing tamarind is vindalu "vindaloo", a fiery pork stew from the former Portuguese colony of Goa. Vindaloo is a spicy, tropical version of Portuguese porco vinho e alho in which pork is marinated for several hours with a paste made from ground onions, garlic, ginger and a host of spices (chilli, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, cumin, toasted black mustard seeds) and then stewed together with the marinade and tamarind water until tender. Often, vinegar is added to obtain a more acidic taste. Poultry variants are popular with Hindus and Muslims. Outside of India, the recipe is often bastardised by adding potatoes due to confusion with Hindi alu "potato". Another South Indian food employing tamarind is the vegetable rice dish bese bele from Karnataka.
On Java, Indonesia's most populous island, tamarind is used as the basis for spicy and sometimes sweet sauces used to marinade meat or soy bean cheese (tahu) before frying. A typical mixture might contain tamarind water, soy sauce, garlic and possibly ginger and greater galangale, with chillies added to taste. Javanese food is unique in Indonesia for its sweet-sour compositions, but the sweet-sour taste is much less dominant than in some Chinese recipes. For the sour taste, Javanese prefer tamarind to lemon and as sweeteners they prefer sweet soy sauce, kecap manis, to sugar.
Although only a small minority of Western consumers knows tamarind today, one product containing tamarinds that has gained importance in international cuisine is English Worcestershire sauce, made to a recipe brought back from India by Lord Marcus Sandys, ex-Governor of Bengal.
In peninsular South-East Asia (Vietnam and Thailand), the pods are used both ripe and unripe and in the fresh state they are less fruity and more astringent. Tamarind is often used for acidic soups, which are very refreshing in the tropical climate of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Fresh tamarind pods cannot be dried or preserved, except by deep-freezing.