The Tamarind Tree

The superbly versatile Tamarind Fruit

This morning I was attracted to a particularly robust and handsome tree situated in an expanse of grassland not too far from the river bank. What caught my eye first was the red flash of a woodpecker’s crest as it dove into the deep cover of a fine and dense canopy. As I investigated further I was struck by just how many other individual birds of different and unusual species were active among the branches and leaves of this beautiful tree.

Some trees in the forest are more popular with birds than others, and this cannot always be explained by the seeds or the fruit. I suppose in human terms this could be defined as charisma. Why it is so it is never easy to define, but some trees just have something, and some trees just don’t.

The Tamarind Tree

This particular tree was the ubiquitous Tamarind Tree. A very common sight everywhere within in the Grumeti Wildlife Reserve, and in fact found all over the woodland quadrant of the Serengeti National Park, the Tamarind is always a good looking child of the savannah, but this one was a particular beauty. It occurred to me as I made my way home that I would write a little bit about the Tamarind Tree. I have submitted blogs on people of note and consequence in Africa elsewhere in this blog, and so why not a tree of great stature and dignity that has served Africa so well, and carried the piquant flavour of the tropical woodland of this continent to thickets and hollows across the spectrum of the tropics.

The Tamarind Tree, or Mkwaju in Swahili, is a large, fulsome, well proportioned and free standing tree of the wide savannah bushveld. Its distribution is global, however, even though at its origin it is an indigenous African species. It features in food and sauces worldwide, is even a sweet delicacy in certain places, and in particularly in Indian cuisine it is an absolutely fundamental ingredient.

Mistaken Identity of the Tamarind Tree

The most interesting thing about the Tamarind Tree I believe is the fact that it was first identified and named in India, thus its technical name, Tamarindus indica, and no doubt it is for this reason that the Tamarind has come to be so completely identified with India. Ironically it was re-imported to Africa at some point by Indian tradesmen and administrators to Zanzibar Island where a population of the tree became established and has since has been of long and august standing. Quite how the Tamarind made its way to the orient, and from thereto the rest of the world is a story that will never be told.

According to Wikipedia, with its characteristically prosaic interpretation of events ‘…it reached South Asia likely through human transportation and cultivation several thousand years prior to the Common Era.’ No doubt. It is unlikely that it flew. What the term Human Transportation fails to evoke is the great epoch of trade and human dispersal that characterised the early part of the second millenia.

The many winds of trade

The Tamarind found a home in India

A serendipitous wind blows along the east coast of Africa. This is a trade wind in the fairest sense of the word. For one half of the year it blows southwards down the coast, and for the other it blows northwards. Nothing could be more conductive to the ebb and flow of trade in the days of mono-sail than this; and indeed tradesmen and mariners of the Arabian Penninsular have since time immemorial plied the East Coast in search of slaves, ivory gold and other exotic products of the African tropics. In exchange manufactured goods from the orient arrived in Africa, and a race of people styled the Swahili emerged as intermediaies, adopting many Islamic cultural traditions, not least its faith, and splashes of its language, but many of its customs of dress and social mores that over time idenified the Swahili as hybrid people of great accomplishment and style.

It is no doubt via this route that the the humble Tamarind found its way to India. Long before western botany sought to identify it, it was adopted, cultivated and proliferated across the sub-continent, becoming almost an original, and there being noticed and catalogued, and thus named Tamarindus indica.

The Indians and Arabs were usurped on the coast of East Africa in the late 1400s by the arrival of the Portuguese. This event occurred within the scope of written history, and can be defined as 1488 when Portuguese mariner Bartholomew Diaz bobbed around the Cape of Good Hope in a flimsy caravel and placed the first Christian foot upon the sands of East Africa. With characteristic piety and virtue the Arabs were violently expelled and the great trade in human flesh that was the Indian Ocean Slave Trade fell into the hands of Christendom. Thereafter it was elevated to industrial proportions, and as black men and women were landed on the shores of Brazil and the Caribbean, so were saplings of the Tamarind Tree, and here both flourished, as populations of each will amply testify. The Tamarind even became the official tree of the Cuban town of Santa Clara.

What is it about that Tamarind Tree?

Why is the Tamarind Tree so sought after and respected? To this question there is no simple answer. However to start with the fruit is as good a place as any. The fruit of the Tamarind is bean like in appearance, and crisp and pulpy in texture. It is of tan or cinnamon color, and slightly astringent on the tongue when eaten directly from the tree. In this way it is not particularly pleasant, since it is very bitter, but in an odd way it is rather satisfying, and one bite seems to invite another.

A tree of multiple uses

As a bush staple it is popular with all the usual suspects. Inasmuch as it is like a fine scotch it is rare to find a Tamarind Tree in fruit without a congregation of baboons supping on its hard-to-define pleasure. Others, such as elephant, are also fond of the fruit, but being a creature that quaffs its drink, elephant are more likely to be found around the neighborhood Marula Tree were the more accessible flavor and more satisfying volume of fallen fruit tends to attract this and other journeyman drinkers. Others such as the little bush duiker take delicate snifters of what falls to the ground, and even the gorgeous little Kirk’s Dik-Dik is never far from the base of a Tamarind as the browsing baboons drop what little they care not to sample. Throughout Madagascar the Tamarind is a favorite fruit of several lemurs.

And we too, of course…

So it is with the human animal. Across the tropical belt of Africa where this versatile tree is found it forms an important dry season addition to scarce food supplies and a vital standby for vulnerable communities in times of famine or crop failure. In mainstream cuisine the fruit has many applications, and is found in all kinds of surprising places. Worcestershire Sauce, for example, derives much of its tang from Tamarind essence. The ever popular HP sauce in the UK has amongst its exotic flavors a hint of Tamarind. High levels of vitamin B are to be found in the fresh fruit, and surprisingly, high levels of calcium. Tamarind jams and chutneys are popular while a Tamarind sorbet is featured on select menus worldwide. In Indian cooking it is indispensable, being a base flavor is curries, pickles and chutneys.

The fruit of the Tamarind in all is many applications features prominently in the cuisine of many other Asian and South East Asian countries.

In Mexico the fruit of the Tamarind is sold as a street delicacy either dried and salted or candied. In Egypt an extract of Tamarind fruit is diluted and taken as a chilled summer drink.

In Myanmar it is the leaves and flowers that are consumed as a salad ingredient.

Bush Doctor

There are very few trees in the African list, and no doubt the global list, that do not have some medicinal application. Most of these, one has to suspect, are more placebo than actual in terms of their medicinal value. The Tamarind, however, is a tree of such multiple functionalities that it is easy to believe the popular mythology that it is a cure-all that is good for whatever ails you. Here are some of the commonly listed medical attributes of the Tamarind Tree:

In Africa the fruit pulp is used as a laxative. The roots are used as relief for coughs

and fevers. The bark is boiled and taken for sore throats as well as a popular tea or hot drink. It also serves as a cure for diarrhea and dysentery.

In modern, mainstream medicine it is used in the manufacture of a variety of drugs with uses ranging from treating intestinal worms to antiseptics, antiviral and antibacterial agents. These are just a few of a great many medical uses tamarind fruit, bark and other products are put to.

And furthermore

In other applications Tamarind seed, fruit and wood products are mainly used out of Africa. In Asia fruit pulp is used as a brass polish. The wood of the tree is a strong red color and is sought after in carpentry and furniture making. In Asia a Tamarind cane has in the past been a common implement for punishment.

As a consequence of this the tree is commercially grown throughout the world.

As a final thought, the most common application of the name ‘Tamarind’ is in the naming of restaurants. Google lists thousands of them.