Tamarind surprises your taste buds simultaneously with both sweet and sour flavors. But beyond sending your tongue into a pleasurable quandary of confusion and providing a distinctive tang to many culinary dishes, tamarind also contains a bounty of healthful benefits.
Tamarinds are very ancient trees named from the Arabic and Persian words tamar and hindi meaning “date of India” (though its fruit tastes nothing like a traditional date). On Curaçao, it’s called by its Papiamentu name tamarijn. Originally from Africa, tamarind trees took root in the West Indies thanks to explorers who often used the fruit of its pods to prevent scurvy. Being a hearty tree that thrives regardless of soil type, it adapted well to the Caribbean, and since it tolerates salt spray it is comfortable by tropical seashores. They were cultivated to provide shade – their sprawling canopies of verdant green make wonderful natural umbrellas. The tamarind tree’s flowers are tiny and beautiful, but it’s the pulpy fruit of the tree’s brown bean-like pods that is most valued. The pods are also very popular with Curaçao’s bird population, providing them with welcome sustenance when little else grows.
"Another myth holds that it is best to avoid these trees at night because that’s when ghosts come out looking to cause mischief with mortals."
There have always been superstitions surrounding the tamarind. One reason that these trees are thought to be otherworldly is that little survives growing under a tamarind due to its inherent acidity, which contaminates the ground around it. A common myth suggests that if you fall asleep under a tamarind you will never wake up! Another myth holds that it is best to avoid these trees at night because that’s when ghosts come out looking to cause mischief with mortals.
From the beginning of time to the present day, many civilizations and cultures have used the fruit and leaves of the tamarind tree for medicinal purposes. In various applications and preparations it is good for everything from sunstroke, poisoning, malaria, arthritis, dysentery, digestion, and even paralysis and leprosy to name just a few. Nutrition-wise, tamarind fruit is very rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin and is also a good source of niacin.
It’s difficult to describe tamarind’s complex taste – it is sweet, sour, fruity, and almost spicy all at once. But you have probably tasted tamarind without even realizing it if you have ever consumed Worcestershire sauce. It is the main flavoring of that spicy staple. The British discovered tamarind in their East-Indian colonies and used it to develop the now-famous sauce.
In East Indian, Asian, and Caribbean cuisine, the pulp of the pods is separated from the seeds and used in a wide variety of dishes. It is a laborious process, however, and now most people buy it as a paste or a pre-prepared block to be used to flavor sauces, stews, soups, and even jams. It is also very popular as a base for soft drinks in tropical countries since it naturally lowers body temperature.
On Curaçao, tamarind is often used to flavor dishes like fish and also to make thick sweet syrup and a unique candy called dushi di tamarijn. Look for the candy in local supermarkets, but be forewarned, it is an acquired, but also very addictive, taste!