Tamarind: Not Just For Sauce

By Kim Kido

Found in everything from Worcestershire® sauce to a treatment for mange, tamarind (Tamarindus indica) has a variety of uses. With “indica” for a species name and common name originating from tamar-u’l-Hind (meaning “date of India”), people sometimes think the fruit comes from India. But tamarind is actually native to the savannahs of West Africa, where some tribes consider the tree sacred.

Tamarind tree. (Photo credit: Leonora Enking)

Perhaps because the tree has been grown in many places throughout the tropics for a very long time, many cuisines feature tamarind in dishes. The pulp is an ingredient in Indian vindaloo, for example, as well as Filipino sinigang soup, Indonesian sayur asam, and Pad Thai. Found inside brittle brown pods hanging from tree branches, the sticky pulp must be separated from several seeds to be used.

Across Africa, the sweet-sour tang of the pulp is often eaten fresh or used to make juices and sodas. In Ghana, for example, the pulp is seasoned with spices and diluted with water to make a drink called puha. In the Sahel, the pulp is mixed with water to make a paste used to flavor bland porridges. The pulp can also be preserved, either by adding sugar and molding the combination into cakes or by leaving the ripe pods on the tree for up to six months.

Uses of the pulp is not limited to cookery. Mixed with salt, the pulp makes a good polish for metals like brass and silver. Concentrated raw pulp makes an effective laxative, and a paste made by mixing pulp with crushed and roasted castor oil seeds can treat mange in goats.

Nearly every other part of the tree is also useful. The sour young leaves, flowers, and seed pods add flavor to rice, fish, and meats. Young pods can be roasted, boiled, or pickled and eaten like a vegetable or added to salads. The starchy seeds can also be boiled or roasted like peanuts, and either eaten or made into flour. The flour is used in baking or as a protein-rich concentrate feed for livestock. Parts of the seed can also be used in leather tanning and making fish poisons, while the dense, termite-resistant wood is used for making toys, furniture, boats, and charcoal.

The tree can grow up to 75 feet in height and live for over a century. The tree’s dense canopy and drought resistance make it useful in landscaping as it can provide shade in the hot, semi-arid regions where it thrives.

Despite all of its uses, little work has been done to improve the species by selecting for traits like yield or sweetness. The tree is known to produce bud sports – fruits on some branches that are different and in some cases better than that of the rest of the tree due to genetic mutation. Propagating the bud sports by grafting could expedite the discovery of better varieties.

What do you use tamarind for?

Kim Kido is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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