Tamarind: The “Indian Date”

Tamarind is very crucial in many societies and their medicine and cuisine, particularly in South India.

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Every other year, my family heads to South India to spend the whole summer with our relatives. For a few weeks every break, we stay at my grandparents’ house which is situated in our native town; this is where I was first exposed to tamarind trees. The serene village my grandparents lived in is covered with tamarind trees. On days I feel despondent, just sitting on the swing in our porch glancing at our trees and birds makes me feel better; I get the sense that life has many downs, but I need to stick to my goals. Having many tamarind trees in our backyard allows my grandma easy access to tamarinds, of course.

Tamarind is utilized in a plethora of Indian dishes, from simple yet refreshing soups called rasam, to elegant chicken curries. Just from the smell of the kitchen, I know exactly when my paati (as I call my sweet grandmother) is preparing the dishes. After hearing all my paati’s stories about her family’s experiences picking tamarind and about the dishes her mom made, I got a great opportunity to learn more about my ancestors’ traditions. Because tamarind trees comprised most of the Indian dishes made in the 1900s in my family, it has been interesting to learn more about it through this paper; this oftentimes enigmatic plant is very crucial in many societies and their medicine and cuisine, particularly in South India.

Tamarind or tamar-i-hind, which literally translates to “date of India” as the Arabs called it, is one of the most prevalent trees of India. The “date of India” is particularly popular in the tropics and is a sour fruit pod of tall evergreen tree, who have leaves all four seasons. Interestingly enough, Tamarindus indica, the binomial name, is native to tropical Africa. Initially, the tamarind tree was widely cultivated along the African western coasts. Most likely through human transportation, tamarind reached South India before any major land routes, such as the Silk Road, which extended four thousand miles connecting the European world to Western Asia. A number of important crop plants, such as sorghum and finger millet, reached South Asia from Africa by 2000 BC. Soon after the Age of Discovery in the sixteenth century, Portuguese and Spanish colonists introduced tamarind to Mexico; the practice that started then is now one of the most cultivated crops. The trees are typically around 30 meters tall and have a beautiful feathery foliage on the top; just their trunks themselves can be up to two meters in diameters.

The unusually refreshing sour taste of the fruit is particularly popular in South Asia. Due to a high demand of tamarind in the South Indian region, India has evolved to become one of the top producers of tamarind both domestically and internationally. Many cultivators from around the world unanimously agree that tamarind trees are easy to care for as long as the long brown fruits are picked before they dry. Once they dry, they will start falling down and the shells will soon decompose and make the ground extremely sticky. The fruit pods and seeds of tamarind have a very distinct tart flavor that is naturally looked forward to in many south Indian dishes, such as rasam. In South Asia as a whole, it is utilized in a variety of dishes, such as curries, rice, meat, beverages, and even sweets. Due to its versatility in different types of dishes and its idiosyncratic flavor, tamarind is sold in many forms, including whole fruits, dried brown pulp, paste, or just a solid block of brown pulp.

All forms of tamarind carry a great source of zinc; therefore, from the early Indus civilization period, it has been made into a porridge and given to pregnant women in South India. It is commonly believed that those (as in the pregnant women) who drink this porridge will give birth to babies, who will have eternal lives; immortality was heavily sought after during the civilization era. Other than helping newborn babies live eternal lives, both the immature and ripe tamarind pods add a sweet, yet acidic flavor to Indian dishes. Some regions, such as Aruppukottai located in the state Tamil Nadu, even prepare syrups, which are used as a condiment for Indian crepes.

Aruppukottai, the town where religious tolerance in South India was first established, also mass produces dry blocks of tamarind—no component of water whatsoever. Whenever my paati prepares the rasam, she soaks a portion of the dry tamarind in water for at least ten minutes. It is then added to other masala or spices; many times, that marinade is used to make the crispiest and tastiest coating for chicken and fish. Some extracts of this tamarind liquid are utilized to flavor products, such as tamarind pickle, which is a great condiment for curd rice, and Worcestershire sauce.

Not only is the fruit useful, but the other parts, such as the seeds, leaves, and flowers can be advantageous to the animal world, as well. The tender leaves, flowers and young seedlings are also eaten as vegetables. Leaves are fed to livestock as fodder and the flowers are considered to be a good source of honey. The seeds are also edible and flour made from them can be used to bake cakes and breads. Roasted seeds are reputed to be delicious. Seeds can also be a source of polysaccharides that can be used commercially to produce thickening agents. Extracts from the seeds have been used as a stabilizer in ice cream.

Most parts of the tamarind tree are not only is a part of some of the tastiest dishes in Indian cuisine but also part of ameliorating an unhealthy digestive tract. Tamarind fruits and leaves have been used in traditional South Asian medicine. Taken internally or applied externally, a range of conditions are treated including sore throats, sunstroke and stomach upsets. Tamarind seeds are used traditionally to treat diabetes, fevers and intestinal infections. They are also used in the treatment of both diarrhea and as a laxative. This activity could be associated with a group of protein compounds known as lectins that are present in tamarind.

The fruits are used to flavor drinks given to patients with fever. When prescribed in this way, the tamarind is often mixed with lime, honey, milk, and spices. Pulp from the seed pods is applied to painful joints and is mixed with salt and used as a gargle to treat sore throats. Moreover, it is given to people who are suffering from sunstroke and those who have had too much alcohol to drink. Furthermore, leaves are boiled and applied to swollen joints, boils, and sprains; infusions of the leaves are used to treat jaundice.

What is truly intriguing is the fact that several well-known poets and writers have referenced to tamarind in their literature, especially in the Tamil language; this emphasizes the importance of tamarind and its evolution throughout Indian history. Tamil is one of the oldest languages ever to exist and shares many features with Arabic and the holy language of Sanskrit. Its literature is extremely cherished in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and indubitably also the rest of the subcontinent. A reference includes the famous Silappatikaram, an epic poem where the protagonist, Kaniga, prepares her favorite dishes of tamarind for her loving husband. To sum the brilliant story Silappatikaram into one sentence, it is a story of a wife named Kaniga who strives to bring justice for her husband, who was wrongly killed for a crime he had not committed. More references are included in Ayurvedic literature; ayurveda is an art of healing human life through religious Hindu methods. One such author is Vagbhata, who strongly emphasized the fact that more than eighty percent of the diseases can be completely cured without referring to a doctor; his common “medicinal fruit” indicated in his writings known as Asthanga Hrdaya, which dates all the way back to 600 AD. Tamarind is one such fruit that he believed to have innumerable health benefits before any strong research was ever done.

Prevalent from the beginning of the Indus civilization to now, Africa-origin tamarind is an essential fruit that is a part of many Indian dishes and has innumerable curative elements. This is one unique fruit pod that has also been mentioned in many literary works from Tamil to Ayurveda literature. Now knowledgeable of its versatility, I can now look at the tamarind trees in my grandparents’ backyard and ponder over all its functions and roles in the history of India until now. These trees have stood in India for millions of years from the Mughal dynasty to the British rule and will continue to face more important historical events in the future.

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