Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

March’s fruit of the month – Tamarind


Page-16Of all the fruits of the tropics, none is more widely distributed or more appreciated as an ornamental than the tamarind. Of the family leguminosae, tamarindus indica, is known colloquially as variations of the common English term in many European countries. In Spanish and Portuguese it is tamarindo, in French, tamarin, tamarinier or tamarindier, in German, tamarinde and in Italian as tamarandizio. In Asian countries the names differ. In Malay it is asam jawa, in Cambodia, ampil or khoua me, in Laos, mak kham and in Thailand it’s called ma-kharm.

      Originally native to tropical Africa, it’s now found right around the world where conditions are right. It was well known to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and was introduced to India so long ago that it’s often reported as being indigenous to there also. Apparently it was from India that it reached the Persians and Arabs who called it tamar hindi (meaning ‘Indian date’, due to the date-like appearance of the dried pulp). This gave rise to both its common and generic names. Unfortunately, the specific name ‘indica’ also perpetuates the illusion of Indian origin.

      It’s a slow-growing, long-lived tree that can reach heights of up to 100 feet in favourable conditions. While the leaves are normally evergreen they

can be shed in very dry areas during the hot season. You’ll find the fruits are flattish, beanlike and have irregularly bulged pods. They can grow in great abundance and vary between two and seven inches long. Usually they are brownish in colour on the outside and as they mature will fill out and the juicy, acidulous pulp will darken. Thereafter the skin becomes brittle and the shell is easily cracked.

      As a food it has many uses. Tender, immature, very sour pods are cooked as seasoning with rice, fish and some meats in Southeast Asian countries. Full-grown, but still unripe fruits, called ‘swells’ in the Bahamas, are roasted in coals until they burst. The skin is then peeled back and the sizzling pulp dipped in wood ashes and eaten. In Thailand, particularly in the Northeast, it is sometimes added to massaman curries and to soups such as tom yam and tom ka. And with spicy fried fish dishes, tamarind pulp can be rubbed on the fish before cooking to add a particular flavour.

     It is also an important ingredient in chutneys and sauces, including some brands of Worcestershire and barbecue sauces. And you’ll find it in a special Indian seafood pickle, unsurprisingly called ‘tamarind fish’. In the West Indies a sugared tamarind pulp is often prepared as a confection and in Panama the pulp is sold as a snack in corn husks or palm leaves. A carbonated drink called tamarind-ade has long been a popular drink in several Central American countries and a spiced tamarind beverage has been developed by technologists in India.

      But, for me, the Brazilians have got the right idea. They’ve done what eventually had to happen. First of all they allow a quantity of shelled fruits to be covered in cold water and left to stand for around 12 hours. They then strain the seeds out and add one cup of sugar for every two cups of pulp. I think you can see where this is going! This mixture is then boiled for 20 minutes and – this is the best part – then put up in glass jars topped with paraffin! What happens after that is unknown as no-one can ever remember!

       There are a number of other uses for the pulp and different parts of the tree. In West Africa an infusion of the whole pods is added to the dye when colouring goat hides. It also serves to coagulate rubber latex, and the pulp, when mixed with sea water, cleans silver, copper and brass. Cattle and goats can be fed the leaves and when the leaves are boiled they are used to bleach the leaves of the buri palm to prepare them for hat making. Flowers from the tree are rated as a good source of nectar for honeybees in South India. And the powder from tamarind kernels has been adopted by the Indian textile industry as 300% more efficient and more economical than corn-starch for finishing cotton, jute and spun viscose. Other industrial uses include employment in colour printing of textiles, paper-sizing, leather treating, the manufacture of a structural plastic, a glue for wood, and a thickener in some explosives. It’s exported to Japan, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

         Amber oil from the seeds is often used as an illuminant and as a varnish, especially preferred for painting dolls and idols. As the heartwood is very hard and durable, it’s highly prized for furniture, wheels, axles, ploughs, mallets and tool-handles. It’s also valued for fuel as it gives off an intense heat and yields a charcoal used in the manufacture of gunpowder. Young stems can also be fashioned into walking-sticks.

         Medically, the uses of tamarind are innumerable. Vast quantities are exported to pharmaceutical companies around the world each year. Tamarind preparations are recognised as refrigerants in fevers and as laxatives and carminatives. And with the addition of other ingredients, it’s been used as a digestive and a cure for bile disorders. It can be used for inflammations and to combat sunstroke. And an infusion of the roots is believed to have curative value in chest complaints, and is an ingredient in prescriptions for leprosy.

         There are also a few superstitions surrounding the tree. To certain Burmese, the tree represents the dwelling-place of the rain god and some hold the belief that the tree raises the temperature in its immediate vicinity. Few plants will survive beneath a tamarind tree and there is a superstition that it’s harmful to sleep or tie a horse underneath one. This is probably because of the corrosive effect that fallen leaves have on fabrics in damp weather. In parts of Malaysia, a little tamarind and coconut milk is placed in the mouth of an infant at birth. And the bark and fruit are given to elephants to make them wise. I might try that myself!

         Clearly this is a very important and useful fruit that has innumerable uses. You’ve probably had some and just not realised it. Even if you haven’t eaten it in some way you might be wearing it, for it’s used extensively in body scrubs, lotions, hair dyes, lip balms and soaps. You’ll find the fruits in the local markets on Samui and most notably, at the Impiana Resort in Chaweng Noi, which has named its fine-dining restaurant – Tamarind – in honour of the huge tamarind tree growing in the middle of the resort.


Johnny Paterson


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