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Tamarind - It’s not just sour

It’s sour, very sour, but it has a flavour and taste that no other ingredient can match. Yes, I am talking about tamarind, an ingredient that lends its special taste to anything it is added to.

Boy is it sour

Can you think of chaat without the sweet date and tamarind chutney? I cannot. The combination of sweet and sour in this chutney elevates the chaat to a level which you cannot reach without it. At home we always have a bottle full of this chutney preserved in the refrigerator for use at those unexpected times when we need to quickly dish up bhel or a sev batata puri.

Legend has it that Marco Polo claimed the Malabar pirates made their victims swallow a mixture of tamarind and sea water, forcing them to vomit the entire contents of their stomach, revealing any pearls they may have swallowed to conceal them. So sour is tamarind.

Origins of tamarind

Though the word tamarind comes from the Arabic word 'Tamar-e-Hind' which means 'dates from India', it has an African origin. Today, it is a much-valued food ingredient in many Asian and even Latin American recipes. And yes, did you know that it’s also the secret ingredient in Worcestershire sauce?

Easiest way to use tamarind is to soak it for a while and then strain its pulp. The pulp is widely used in a number of Asian dishes, from Indian curries and chutneys to Philippine soups. It is also found in some cool drinks like Imli ka Amlana.

Like mango, some tamarinds are sweeter than others and it would be quite accurate to say that the sweeter it is the darker is its pulp. One cup of tamarind pulp has approximately 285 calories and is an excellent source of potassium.

Tamarind in our kitchen

The sour and fruity taste of tamarind merges well with the heat of chillies and gives many South Indian dishes their hot and sour character as well as their dark colour. Tamarind is used very widely in Mangalore, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. In Kerala they mostly use kochumpuli, which in layman’s terms is referred to as ‘fish tamarind’, because they use it to add sourness to their fish curries. Along the Konkan coast kokum is also used for its sourness and delightful flavour. Tamarind is also used in Bengal however to a lesser extent. The water for puchka – their version of pani puri – is tamarind.

Medicinal uses of tamarind

Some people believe that tamarind causes rheumatic pains, etc. So let me tell you that the whole plant has medicinal virtues. Its leaves are cooling and antibilious, while the bark is an astringent, a tonic and helps in reducing fever. The fruit pulp is digestive, antiflatulent, cooling, laxative and antiseptic. Its seeds are also astringent.

Also tamarind pulp, being rich in vitamin C, is valuable in preventing and curing scurvy. It is significant that tamarind does not lose its antiscorbutic property on drying as in case of other fruits and vegetables.

My South Indian friend tells me that pepper rasam, a clear soup, which is considered an effective home remedy for colds in South India, is prepared by boiling very dilute tamarind water with a teaspoon of hot ghee and half a teaspoon of black pepper powder for a few minutes. This steaming hot rasam has almost an instant effect since soon after consuming it the nose and eyes water and the nasal blockage is cleared. And believe it does, I take it every time I have a heavy cold and feel ever so relieved.