Surprise legume: tamarind

Tamarind! They kind of look like very malformed kiwis. Kiwi? Kiwis.

Hi folks! I’m back on track today with another leguminous adventure through history. Well, I’m mostly back on track, cause I’m not actually going to talk about the bean part today. No, today I’ll be taking a look at the history and use of tamarind. Tamarind is actually the pulp from inside the pod, not the seed (or bean) itself. While the beans can be used to make oil, it doesn’t seem to be used in cooking. Instead, it looks like it’s used as a food coloring and also to make vermouth (interesting!). Maybe I’ll look into that vermouth thing later (distill your history?), but for now let’s look at the part of this legume that makes it into our tummies.

I’ve probably had tamarind mixed into other things before without really knowing or thinking too hard about it (this blog helps me pay a lot better attention to what and how I eat), but a few weeks ago I got to experience it as a star player in a fantastic meal. My cousin (and currently also my roommate) had his girlfriend over and she offered to cook for us. She made us Pork Sinigang (pronounced sin-uh-gong) and asked us if we were okay with sour food. I was expecting the souring agent to be some sort of vinegar, but it was a spice packet. When I checked it out, the main ingredient was tamarind, and I was excited to see (or taste, rather) what it would do to the dish.

Sinigang. Not the one we ate, I was too excited to eat it to take any pictures!

Oh my goodness I’m in love. It’s such a wonderful medley of sour and earthy and crunchy vegetables and melt-in-your-mouth pork all served over tender rice. I didn’t know boiled (technically, but it was so much more than that) meat could be that good! I know I linked a recipe already, but I’m going to try and get her to write up her method because she just whipped it up like it was no big thang. Also, because I would very much like to re-create it!

So tamarind and I are buds now. As such, I figured I should look into its past and see if I could find anything interesting! Guys, I had no idea it was a legume. I was so excited when I found out! If this blog achieves nothing else, I hope it can at least help people learn new things about their food and their history. Even if it’s just me here learning by myself, it’s a worthwhile endeavor in my book.

The word tamarind is very straightforward. It’s Arabic for Indian Date (tamar hindi) because, while the plant is likely indigenous to tropical Africa, it was grown and used in India for so long that those naming it believed that was where it originated. It still grows wild (it’s a leguminous tree, by the way) all over Africa and in parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It was already in South Asia, likely through human intervention, as early as several thousand years BC. It’s all over, from Australia to China, Southeast Asia to islands throughout the tropical belt. In one Indian myth it was literally declared the king of trees.

As for food, it also gets around. It’s used as a souring agent, as I experienced first-hand, but is also used to pickle things and can even turn a particular poisonous yam in Ghana into something edible. It’s used in chutnies, curries, and candies.  It’s apparently even used in Worcestershire Sauce!

Beyond its culinary capabilities, tamarind is also used in fold medicine throughout Southeast Asia, and has been showed to lower the cholesterol in eggs when given to the chickens laying them.

I’m glad I met tamarind. It sounds like it might be hard to find it in a non-powdered form where I am, but maybe the internet can help me out and I can try my hand at making some of these things! Tamarind candy sounds delightful, as do tamarind-aided pickles.

I’ll see if I can get us all that Sinigang recipe, too!