The tamarind tree is a personal favourite of mine as it helped me a great deal when I was hitch-hiking around western Thailand back in 1986. Hitch-hiking wasn’t really the preferred method of transport for most travellers and tourists, and the border area with Burma (or Myanmar as it’s now called) was often just a kilometre or less away. When I think back it’s amazing I wasn’t given more grief by the local police and military, but I think they were often just amused by my Western way of trying to save bus fares when I must have appeared very rich in the locals’ eyes - even if I did often look like a smelly hippie! Anyway... back to the tamarind. The tree is magnificent - huge, spreading branches, often a majestic height, and frequently found planted along the side of the road as a wonderful sun-block for the locals. The fruit, resembling brown broad bean pods, would simply fall to the road when they were ripe and ready. Some days I’d sit for three or four hours under their shade, wondering if I’d get a ride, and I found that by sucking on the pulp from the inside of the tamarind I was kept refreshed - their sour and astringent flavour keeping my mouth salivating. One day, after about five hours in the incredible heat, I was amazed to see an elephant hurtling towards me from far away along the scorching road. I was transfixed until it got quite close and I realised it was actually on the back of a small pick-up truck - the haze coming off the road had kept that hidden from my tired brain. It whizzed by, I didn’t get a ride that day, and I headed back to whatever town I was trying to leave and no doubt ate a Pad Thai or stir-fried rice flavoured with tamarind amongst other things.
Tamarind had always been associated with India in my mind but, when I arrived in India several months after leaving Thailand, I found out it was native to tropical areas of Africa such as Madagascar (the animal TV programme lover in me knew that some types of lemur liked to eat it). I’d even heard it referred to as an Indian date when I’d eaten at a Persian restaurant while living in Melbourne, and I’ve realised since that this is due to the fact that it must have entered the cuisines of Persia and other Arabic regions via trade routes between them and India. The tamarind pod is a brown, hard case that, when broken open, contains some really hard, large brown seeds enveloped in a sticky brown paste, which in turn has some coarse thick fibres wrapped around it. The bit you eat is the pulp, and this can be best extracted either by mushing the pulp between your fingers in a bowl of tepid water then pushing through a sieve, or if you buy a compacted block of tamarind, which is easier to source, you can cut it up with a big knife, then simmer in water until it breaks apart, and again push through a sieve. I bought the tamarind pods in the photo from China Town in London and it was a type I wasn’t too familiar with. The pods were quite juvenile and lacked the dense sticky paste, but they had a great astringency - which is the wonderful attribute they offer to many cuisines, including Mexico, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Egypt, Thailand and so many more.
In India, I discovered tamarind used in all sorts of dishes and chutneys, but it was also recommended to me as a good way to help with a stomach upset I had - and it seemed to work, drunk as a tea, simply muddled into hot water and left to cool. Often when I’m giving a cookery demo in England I will ask if anyone regularly uses or eats tamarind. The ‘white faces’ in the audience generally say no. I then hold up a bottle of ‘The Original & Genuine Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce’ and ask who eats this regularly and suddenly almost the whole room has its hands up. I then tell people that it actually contains tamarind as one of its key ingredients. The reason I do this is to try to get people to realise that while some of the ingredients I use may seem weird and alien, they have a history well before I began using them in my contemporary cooking style. Try whipping a Tablespoon of the pulp into a batch of chantilly cream and dollop it on a warm pear and almond tart, or mix some into an ice-cream base before churning it. Add a few Tablespoons to a red-meat stew to give it another depth of flavour, or whisk some into your next salad dressing, cutting back on the vinegar or lemon juice. It’s a fantastic addition to your repertoire and one you’ll find hard to put down.
© 2010 Peter Gordon. All rights reserved.