Saturday, February 21, 2015

What the heck is that? Tamarind

When my friends Anna and Rabi took a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, I said the same thing I say to all my traveling friends: "Send me some pictures of the produce! Send me some pictures of the produce markets!"

Anna said that the town she visited was too small to have an interesting market. Instead, she took a picture of something else that I found interesting: a tamarind tree.

Anna’s husband Rabi is originally from Sri Lanka, where tamarind is extremely popular. Actually, tamarind is popular all over the world. The word “tamarind” comes from the Arabic words “tamar hind,” or ”Indian date,” but tamarind’s popularity extends far beyond just South Asia. The tree is indigenous to Africa, but now grown in warm spots everywhere. In Mexico, tamarind is a big star, showing up in Jarrittos sodas, agua fresca beverages and ices. Just about every tropical country has some candy or jam that features tamarind, and many cuisines, such as Thai and Indian, use tamarind to give recipes  dishes a certain sweet-sour piquancy. Evidently English colonists couldn't get enough either: tamarind is a key ingredient of Worcestershire sauce.

Here are some highlights from the extensive tamarind foodstuff collection at Kalustyan's, the wonderful international spice store: juice, two kinds of candy, chutney, paste, concentrate, etc.

More recently, however, I’ve started to see something even more interesting for sale: fresh tamarind. I've found it in Chinatown, naturally - all interesting produce sooner or later shows up in Chinatown - and East Harlem, which has many groceries catering to Mexican shoppers. 

I had to try it.

The picture on the tamarind box was pretty accurate: brown pods with a crackly shell and a sticky interior. A twiglike vein ran the length of the pod, and seeds hid underneath the sticky fruit.

The tamarind pulp was certainly tropical fruit-sweet, like dates or dried bananas, with the puckery tang that has made tamarind popular in cooking.

I got into a bit of a groove: Crack off a bit of the shell, peel off the rest. Loosen the twig-vein, which I found somewhat repulsive. Bite off a section of tamarind. Spit out the shiny seed. Chew the tamarind pulp.

Contemplate whether in fact I liked tamarind. Decide I wasn't sure. Reflect on the flavor's similarity to fruits I don't particularly like - bananas, dates - but acknowledge that this sticky sweetness is offset by the tamarind's tang, which I did enjoy. Consider the need for for more experience of that flavor. Bite off another section. 

When there was no more tamarind pulp left to chew, I was forced to acknowledge that I did like tamarind, won over, as millions or even billions of people have, by its sweet-sour charms.

It's hard to argue with a pile of seeds, twig-veins and shell bits.