Tamarind is a widely known produce cultivated throughout the tropics, around the world. Believed to be of East African origin, it is largely grown in India, peninsular Southeast Asia and Latin America.
The tamarind is a leguminous tree of the Fabaceae family, meaning it is related to beans and peas. It also belongs to the Caesalpiniaceae subfamily of legumes, and is closely related to peacock flower, ice cream beans and carob. The tamarind is a beautiful, fine textured tree that makes an excellent shade tree in large landscapes.
Tamarind pulp comes from a bean pod resembling a finger that grows from its fernleaved branches. The word “tamarind” is thought to have come from the Arabic tamral-hindi, literally meaning “Indian date.”
Inside the pod, the pulp surrounding the seeds is highly acidic yet sweet in flavor, and is the main product extracted from the fruit.
From this pulp, a number of products emerge. Traditionally used as a souring agent in the cuisines of South India, Thailand and Vietnam, tamarind makes a perfect combination with sweet and spicy mixtures and highlights the aromas of many ingredients. It plays a key role in famous dishes such as Indian vindaloo, as well as in many bean dishes such as chole, or sour chickpea curry.
Tamarind is most famous, however, for its use in two well-known favorites among gourmets: tamarind chutney and pad thai. It’s also used to make thirst quenchers all around the world, from Indonesia to Mexico.
You may have tried tamarind without even knowing it, as it is a main ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. Used as a medicinal ingredient, the fruit is said to improve digestion, relieve gas, soothe sore throats and act as a mild laxative.
The usefulness of the tamarind tree does not end with its fruit, however. Sometimes compared to the coconut as another “tree of life,” it is widely adaptable and easily managed.
It produces many valued food, medicine, wood and construction products.
Drought-resistant and strong, it performs well as a windbreak, preventing soil erosion and protecting people, crops and animals in harsh environments. Tamarind also provides a beautiful element in thousands of park, garden and roadside landscapes.
In Costa Rica, fresco de tamarindo is a traditional beverage found all over the country, particularly in the dry and hot plains of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, where the tree grows amazingly well. Today the drink is even found bottled and massproduced.
The fresh, dark-brown pulp can be found everywhere, usually neatly packed in plastic wrap and adhering to the seeds, sometimes with sugar added. To use it, simply dissolve the packed mixture in hot water and separate the seeds; be sure to strain it to remove any broken seeds, which can crack a tooth.
The use of tamarind in cooking has been rather shy in Latin American cuisine compared to the many uses it has in Asian cultures; nevertheless, its legacy is present in many forms. From typical Tico tamarind rice to Mexican spicy tamarind caramel, from a Peruvian marinated and baked leg of pork with tamarind to Dominican chicken in tamarind sauce, its presence is assured as nuevo latino chefs of the Americas return to their roots and experiment with this fruit. A visit to Costa Rica in the summertime would not be complete without trying the spectacular tamarind in one of its many forms.
Tamarind Black-eyed Peas over Steamed Rice Ingredients:
1 cup cleaned tamarind pulp
3 cups cooked black-eyed peas
2 medium onions, finely julienned
1-inch piece of fresh ginger root, finely grated
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tbsp. vegetable oil or butter
4 cups cooked, long-grain white or brown rice (such as basmati or jasmine)
In a large pan, sauté onions in oil or butter over high heat until they become translucent. Add ginger and garlic and cook for one minute. Add the spices and sugar and cook for 30 seconds. Then add 1/2 cup of water, black-eyed peas and tamarind pulp. Bring to a boil, then simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Serve over rice and top with a dollop of yogurt. Makes four servings.