What is tamarind?
Tamarind is a tropical fruit with a complex, sweet-tart flavour. It is typically made into a paste or a concentrate and used to enhance the flavour of both sweet and savoury dishes.
The tamarind tree is a member of the pea family, and grows large, bumpy pods containing seeds, along with the sticky, pulpy flesh that we use in cooking. Most of the tamarind you can buy from the store is in paste form, but if you want to make your own paste, fresh tamarind is typically available in three different forms.
Raw Pods are unprocessed, with the fruit still inside the shell. This is the freshest tamarind available.
Pressed tamarind is fruit that has been removed from the shell and condensed into a single block. If you can’t find any raw pods, this is the next best thing.
Boiled tamarind has been cooked to improve shelf life, and may also contain preservatives. This is not as fresh as the other two options, but will keep for longer. Check the label and avoid anything with too many additives.
Tamarind is actually indigenous to Africa, but has long been associated with Indian cuisine, with it’s name deriving from the Arabic tamar Hindi, meaning ‘Indian date’. It is also popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, and will likely be familiar to Ottolenghi fans. This well-travelled fruit was introduced to Mexico and Central America by Spanish and Portuguese colonists in the 16th century, where it also went on to become a staple part of the cuisine.
What does it taste like?
Tamarind has a unique, sweet-sour flavour that makes it popular in sweet and savoury dishes alike. Its flavour has been compared to tangy lemon or lime balanced by sweet caramel notes, or a cross between lemon, apricot and dates. Some varieties of tamarind are sweeter than others, and all become sweeter as they ripen.
Half a cup of tamarind contains 143 calories, which is moderately high for a fruit. It is fat-free, but contains 34 grams of sugar, with 3 grams of fibre and 2 grams of protein. Tamarind is a good source of several nutrients, with the same half-cup serving providing at least 10% of your daily value for vitamins B1 and B3, as well as potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron.
Tamarind is rich in antioxidants, beneficial plant compounds that help prevent cell damage caused by particles called oxidants. Oxidative cell damage can cause premature ageing and various chronic diseases, so it’s important to protect against it by including plenty of antioxidants in your diet.
Tamarind is a good source of amino acids, including all but one of the ‘essential’ amino acids, which your body cannot produce by itself. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and are vital for building and repairing tissue. There is some concern that the amino acids found in tamarind may be difficult for the body to absorb, however, so it is important to include other amino-rich foods in your diet too.
There are several B vitamins to be found in tamarind, which play an important role in brain function and the nervous system. It also provides a good source of magnesium and calcium, both of which help maintain healthy bones and protect against fractures and osteoporosis.
Tamarind is a great source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but like many foods, it may also have potential side effects. As a particularly acidic food, it may cause acid reflux, have a laxative effect, or erode tooth enamel, so avoid eating it in excessive amounts, and be sure to clean your teeth well afterwards.
Like many high-carbohydrate foods, tamarind can cause problems for diabetics, and has been known to lead to hypoglycemia. It can also interact negatively with certain types of medication, so always check with your doctor when prescribed with a new medicine. Tamarind is best avoided if you are taking medication with the potential to cause bleeding, anything designed to constrict the blood vessels, as well as certain ophthalmic antibiotics.
How to eat it
Tamarind is eaten in a variety of different ways around the world. In India it is used to flavour curries and rice, and can be made into chutneys for eating with samosas and pakoras. It is also made into a lollipop known as Chigali, used to flavour rasam soup and included in some varieties of masala chai tea.
In the Middle East it is used alongside dried fruit to add a sweet-sour flavour to meat stews, and several different countries make it into a drink, known variously as tamarindo in Latin and Central America, Nam Ma Kham Wan in Thailand and Poha Beer in Ghana. In the West, it is a key ingredient in UK favourites Worcestershire Sauce and HP Sauce.
If you want to cook with tamarind at home, it tastes great in Indian or Thai curries and in simple chutney recipes. Its acidity makes it the perfect marinade for meat, but it’s great in sweet recipes too. Try mixing a little tamarind paste with water and sugar to make tamarind balls, a simple and tasty Caribbean dessert.