Tamarind – Tamarindus indica


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Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) is a leguminous tree in the family Fabaceae indigenous to tropical Africa. The genus Tamarindus is a monotypic taxon, having only a single species.

The tamarind tree produces edible, pod-like fruit which are used extensively in cuisines around the world. Other uses include traditional medicines and metal polishes. The wood can be used in carpentry. Because of the tamarind’s many uses, cultivation has spread around the world in tropical and subtropical zones.

Tamarindus indica is indigenous to tropical Africa, particularly in Sudan, where it continues to grow wild; it is also cultivated in Cameroon, Nigeria and Tanzania. In Arabia, it is found growing wild in Oman, especially Dhofar, where it grows on the sea-facing slopes of mountains. It reached South Asia likely through human transportation and cultivation several thousand years prior to the Common Era. It is widely distributed throughout the tropical belt, from Africa to South Asia, Northern Australia, and throughout South East Asia, Taiwan and China.

In the 16th century, it was heavily introduced to Mexico, and to a lesser degree to South America, by Spanish and Portuguese colonists, to the degree that it became a staple ingredient in the region’s cuisine.

Today, South Asia and Mexico remain the largest consumers and producers of tamarind.

A tamarind seedling

The tamarind is a long-lived, medium-growth, bushy tree, which attains a maximum crown height of 12 to 18?metres. The crown has an irregular, vase-shaped outline of dense foliage. The tree grows well in full sun in clay, loam, sandy, and acidic soil types, with a high drought and aerosol salt (wind-borne salt as found in coastal areas) resistance.

Leaves are evergreen, bright green in color, elliptical ovular, arrangement is alternate, of the pinnately compound type, with pinnate venation and less than 5?cm in length. The branches droop from a single, central trunk as the tree matures and is often pruned in human agriculture to optimize tree density and ease of fruit harvest. At night, the leaflets close up.

The tamarind does flower, though inconspicuously, with red and yellow elongated flowers. Flowers are 2.5?cm wide, five-petalled, borne in small racemes, and yellow with orange or red streaks. Buds are pink as the four sepals are pink and are lost when the flower blooms.

Tamarind flowers

The fruit is an indehiscent legume, sometimes called a pod, 12 to 15?cm in length, with a hard, brown shell. The fruit has a fleshy, juicy, acidulous pulp. It is mature when the flesh is coloured brown or reddish-brown. The tamarinds of Asia have longer pods containing six to 12 seeds, whereas African and West Indian varieties have short pods containing one to six seeds. The seeds are somewhat flattened, and glossy brown.

The tamarind is best described as sweet and sour in taste, and is high in acid, sugar, B vitamins and, oddly for a fruit, calcium.

As a tropical species, it is frost sensitive. The pinnate leaves with opposite leaflets give a billowing effect in the wind. Tamarind timber consists of hard, dark red heartwood and softer, yellowish sapwood.

Tamarindus leaves and pod

Tamarind is harvested by pulling the pod from its stalk. A mature tree may be capable of producing up to 175?kg of fruit per year. Veneer grafting, shield (T or inverted T) budding, and air layering may be used to propagate desirable selections. Such trees will usually fruit within three to four years if provided optimum growing conditions.

Raw tamarind fruits

The tree is most numerous in South Asia, where it is widely distributed and has a long history of human cultivation. Many South Asian regional languages have their own unique name for the tamarind fruit.

Tamarind tree, India

Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) should not be confused with “Manila tamarind” (Pithecellobium dulce). While in the same taxonomic family Fabaceae, Manila tamarind is a different plant native to Mexico and known locally as guam?chil.

Although native to Sudan and tropical Africa, Asia and Mexico are the largest consumers and producers of tamarind.

Three-day-old tamarind seedling

The tamarind has also long been naturalized in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Pacific Islands. Thailand has the largest plantations of the ASEAN nations, followed by Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines. In India, extensive tamarind orchards produce 275,500 tons (250,000 MT) annually. The pulp is marketed in northern Malaya. It is cultivated all over India, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Commercial plantations throughout tropical Latin America include Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

In the United States, it is a large-scale crop introduced for commercial use, second in net production quantity to India, in the mainly Southern states due to tropical and semitropical climes, notably South Florida, and as a shade and fruit tree, along roadsides and in dooryards and parks.

The fruit pulp is edible. The hard green pulp of a young fruit is considered by many to be too sour, but is often used as a component of savory dishes, as a pickling agent or as a means of making certain poisonous yams in Ghana safe for human consumption.

The ripened fruit is considered the more palatable, as it becomes sweeter and less sour (acidic) as it matures. It is used in desserts as a jam, blended into juices or sweetened drinks, sorbets, ice creams and all manner of snacks.

In Western cuisine, it is found in Worcestershire sauce and HP sauce.

In Karnataka, India, the tamarind, called hunasae hannu, is used in saaru (lentil soup), sambhar or sambar (vegetable soup), gojju (sauce), and several types of chutneys. Imli chutney and pulusu use it. Along with tamarind, sugar and spices are added to (regional) taste for chutneys or a multitude of condiments for a bitter-sweet flavor. The immature pods and flowers are also pickled and used as a side dish. In regional cuisines, such as Rajasthan, Maharashtra (where it is called chincha), Tamil Nadu (where it is called puli) and Andhra Pradesh, use it to make rasam, amtee, sambhar, vatha kuzhambu, and puliyogare. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, tender leaves of tamarind called chintha chiguru and puliyankozhunthu, respectively, are used with lentils to make raw chutney. It is also dried and used in place of ripe tamarind for mild flavor. In southern parts of Kerala, mostly along the coastal belt, it is added to fish curry masalas, with ground coconut for flavoring.

In Guadeloupe, tamarind is known as tamarinier and is used in jams and syrups.

Tamarind sweets in a Mexican candy boutique

In Mexico, it is used in sauces or sold in various snack forms: dried and salted; in sweet, soft clusters, or candied (see for example chamoy snacks). Agua de tamarindo, a fresh beverage made from tamarind, is popular throughout the country. Agua fresca beverages, iced fruit bars and raspados all use it as the main ingredient. Jarritos is a well known export brand soda drink (tamarind is the second most popular flavour of the brand). Mexican tamarind snacks, such as “Batilongo”, Pelon Pelo Rico and Pulparindo are available in specialty food stores worldwide. Often in Mexico, tamarind is plucked off the tree and eaten raw.

A variant of the traditional Mexican mole sauce is made with tamarind paste in addition to the more traditional ingredients of mole, such as chile ancho and chocolate. This version is not very well known outside of the city of Oaxaca.

Tamarind balls from Trinidad and Tobago

In Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries tamarind is rolled into balls (5?cm in diameter) with white granulated sugar and a blend of spices to create tambran balls.

A sour, chilled drink made from tamarind is served in Egypt.

A traditional food plant in Africa, tamarind has potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare.

In southern Kenya, the Swahili people use it to garnish legumes and also make juices. In Somalia, it is used to give rice some sour flavour. In Madagascar, its fruits and leaves are a well-known favorite of the ring-tailed lemurs, providing as much as 50% of their food resources during the year if available. In northern Nigeria, it is used with millet powder to prepare kunun tsamiya, a traditional pap mostly used as breakfast, and usually eaten with bean cake.

In Turkey, it is called demirhindi, and is consumed as a sweetened cold drink. It is also available as a fruit, but is not well known by the general population since it is not grown locally and is imported.

The Javanese dish gurame and more so ikan asem, also known as ikan asam (sweet and sour fish, commonly a carp or river fish) is served throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore; some dishes in Manado, Sulawesi and Maluku cuisines use tamarind.

In Lebanon, the Kazouza company sells a tamarind-flavoured carbonated beverage.

In Myanmar, young and tender leaves and flower buds are eaten as a vegetable. A salad dish of tamarind leaves, boiled beans, and crushed peanuts topped with crispy fried onions is served in rural Myanmar.

In the Philippines, tamarind is used in foods like sinigang soup, and also made into candies. The leaves are also used in sinampalukan soup.

In Thailand, a cultivar has been bred specifically to be eaten as a fresh fruit: it is particularly sweet and minimally sour. It is also sometimes eaten preserved in sugar with chili as a sweet-and-spicy candy. Tamarind is an essential souring ingredient in the central Thai variant of kaeng som, a sour curry. Pad Thai often includes tamarind for its tart/sweet taste (with lime juice added for sourness and fish sauce added for saltiness and umami). A tamarind-based sweet-and-sour sauce is served over deep-fried fish in central Thailand.

In Vietnam, tamarind is eaten fresh or processed into a sweet, sour and sometimes spicy candy. Tamarind is also one of the main ingredients in the Vietnamese sour soup, Canh chua.

Tamarindus indica tree at Bhopal

Throughout Southeast Asia, fruit of the tamarind is used a poultice applied to foreheads of fever sufferers. Based on human study, tamarind intake may delay the progression of skeletal fluorosis by enhancing excretion of fluoride. However, additional research is needed to confirm these results.

Tamarind wood is a bold red color. Due to its density and durability, tamarind heartwood can be used in making furniture and wood flooring.

Tamarind concentrate can be used to remove tarnish from brass and copper.

In temples, especially in Buddhist Asian countries, the fruit pulp is used to polish brass shrine statues, lamps, and other objects, removing tarnish and the greenish patina that forms. In Tamil Nadu in south India tamarind is widely used to clean the copper and bronze utensils.

Tamarind on a place of the foundation of city Santa Clara, Cuba

Throughout Asia and the tropical world, tamarind trees are used as ornamental, garden and cash crop plantings. Commonly used as a bonsai species in many Asian countries, it is also grown as an indoor bonsai in temperate parts of the world.

In hens, tamarind has been found to lower cholesterol in their serum, but not in the yolks of the eggs they laid. Due to a lack of available human clinical trials, there is insufficient evidence to recommend tamarind for the treatment of hypercholesterolemia or diabetes.