The Tamarind: A tree well-traveled

The Tamarind: A tree well-traveled

When the roots are deep there is no reason to fear the wind – African proverb

Having spent most of my childhood in Africa and acquired a fair knowledge of African cuisine and culture, I was blown away by what I did not know about the most widely distributed fruit tree of the tropics, the tamarind tree. Indigenous to tropical Africa, Tamarindus indica, has been cultivated for centuries on the Indian subcontinent and is often reported to have originated there. From India, it spread to Persia and Arabia where it is referred to as the “tamar hindi” (Indian date) and it derived its specific name “indica” which further lends to the illusion of Indian origin. It is now understood to be native to Africa and grows wild in sub-Saharan African countries such as Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Somalia, Tanzania, and Malawi. India remains the largest producer of tamarind in the world at present time.

The tamarind fruit hanging from tree (Photo credit:

The tamarind has a vast array of uses world over from cooking, baking, juices and drinks, with cultural and spiritual rituals, and beliefs surrounding this peculiar tree, fruit and seed. With a sweet and sour or tangy taste, I learned it is a key ingredient in Worchestershire sauce! I must confess I do not remember seeing a tamarind tree or its fruit used for any of these purposes in Cameroon, but given my Caribbean roots, my curiosity was peaked when I learned the tamarind drink is popular in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. Even though I remember drinking a locally made tamarind drink while in Senegal, I had never seen it made or knew what ingredients were used in making this drink. The tamarind is called “daahar” in wolof, the most commonly spoken language in Senegal, and it has been suggested this word is associated with the origin of the name of Senegal’s capital city, Dakar. This tree has long been naturalized in the East Indies and Pacific islands. One variety is known in Thailand as “Makham waan” while the most distributed variety in the US is known as “Manila Sweet”. Most of the tamarind available in the U.S. is from Mexico and California. The fruit is thought to have been transported by humans from Africa to South Asia and was cultivated there for centuries as it was largely incorporated into the local cuisine. The tamarind tree also found its way to Mexico and the Americas through Spanish and Portuguese colonists in the 16th century. With all this new found knowledge, I ventured to make the Jamaican version of a tamarind drink which I have embedded as a short YouTube video below.

We made a refreshing Jamaican tamarind drink!

The tamarind is a slow growing medium sized tree with wind resistant branches and tree-trunks which provide great shade in these tropical regions. It is almost impossible for another tree to flourish under a tamarind due to lack of sunlight and water presumably. Its fruits somewhat resemble a string bean with flat irregularly curved bean pods and a pulp around its seed. More commonly the pods are brown and fleshy though there is a reddish type which is sweeter and considered “superior” to others. The tree tolerates almost all soil types but seems to prefer dry and warmer climates to bear fruit. It is resilient in colder weather and noted to have withstood freezing temperatures in Florida only to sprout back when it warmed up again. It is no wonder the tamarind is grown throughout Central and South America and has been incorporated to every form of cuisine from snacks and appetizers to key ingredients in sauces, chutneys, curries, to yummy desserts and drinks. Once harvested it has a shelf life of several months to years in your pantry. In Asiatic cuisine some argue it is one of the most utilized ingredients rivaled only by vinegar and lemon. It is most commonly used in cooking the dish Pad Thai It would seem no part of the tree is without use as the leaves are cooked and eaten, the flowers used in salads and its tree bark cited for medicinal purposes. Its seed which has been considered an emergency food can also be dried or roasted, fried and ground into flour or serve as a coffee adulterant or substitute. Oil can be extracted from the tamarind seed and the tree’s bark contains about 7% tannin used in tanning hide and dyeing. Because of the tannin in the bark it has been used as a antiseptic and astringent.

When working with tamarind fruit pods, make sure they’re unripe, which ensures a stronger degree of sourness.
Tamarind paste, concentrate and sauce – all forms used in cooking (Photo credit: The New York Times)

According to the USDA, one cup of raw tamarind contains the following nutritional value:

It would be a great disservice to conclude this post about the tamarind without mentioning its medicinal uses. Every year about 200,000lbs of shelled tamarind fruit is imported from Mexico and the Lesser Antilles to the United States for use in the pharmaceutical industry and research. In Europe, most of the imports of tamarind come from Egypt, Calcutta, and the Greater Antilles. Tamarind preparations have been used in alleviating fevers, as laxatives, and improving digestion as well as inflammation. In native practice, it is applied on inflammation and used for infection, gargled for sore throats, and used to counter alcohol intoxication and overdose from other traditional medicines. It is often touted as a “cleanser” and prepared along with other ingredients such as lime, garlic, cumin, vinegar for improved metabolism and weight loss. An infusion of its roots have been reportedly used to alleviate chest pain and as a curative agent for leprosy.

The tamarind fruit is quite unassuming considering all its uses and benefits. Over time it has been distributed worldwide and given its specific properties, it has earned its rightful place in several pantries, kitchen shelfs and petri dishes in medical research laboratories. The tamarind tree is a great example of a tree which fears not the wind but collaborates with it to its advantage. Its flexibility and adaptability are qualities we can all aspire to emulate and seek to replicate its resilience as it endures and flourishes through all forms of weather.

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