Tapping in on Tamarind
Botanical name: Tamarindus indica
Deliciously tangy and one of the most highly prized natural foods in South Asia, the tamarind – the melodic name of which comes from the Persian "tamar-I-hind," meaning "date of India" – is gaining recognition and appreciation throughout the world. Said to be native to Africa, this exotic fruit grows on exceptionally tall trees of the fabaceae family, such as peas, beans, and other legumes, mostly in the warmer, dryer areas of Asia, Mexico, and India.
Tamarind trees produce an abundance of long, curved, brown pods filled with small brown seeds, surrounded by a sticky pulp that dehydrates naturally to a sticky paste. The pods look a bit like huge, brown, overly mature green beans.
After harvest, tamarinds are sometimes shelled in preparation for export. From there, they're often pressed into balls and layered with sugary water or syrup; sometimes they're salted.
Processed tamarind products can be found in supermarkets, but remember that additives can alter the nutritional profile.
It’s better to purchase tamarind when it's fresh and still in the pod. Refrigeration is the best way to preserve the freshness for up to several months.
Health Benefits of Tamarind
As most ancient foods do, tamarind has a long history of medicinal uses. Many involve easing stomach discomfort, aiding digestion, and use as a laxative. Tamarind preparations are used for fevers, sore throat, rheumatism, inflammation, and sunstroke. Dried or boiled tamarind leaves and flowers are made into poultices for swollen joints, sprains, boils, hemorrhoids, and conjunctivitis.
Similar to the natural gums and pectins found in other foods, the sticky pulp referred to earlier contains non-starch polysaccharides, which contribute to its dietary fiber content. They bind with bile to help flush waste through the colon, decreasing the chances of it sticking around.
Each 100 grams of tamarind contain 36% of the thiamin, 35% of the iron, 23% of magnesium and 16% of the phosphorus recommended for a day's worth of nutrition. Other prominent nutrients include niacin, calcium, vitamin C, copper, and pyridoxine.
Tamarinds also contain high levels of tartaric acid, just as citrus fruits contain citric acid, providing not just a zing to the taste buds, but evidence of powerful antioxidant action zapping harmful free radicals floating through your system.
Other phytochemicals found in tamarinds include limonene, geraniol (a natural antioxidant with a rose-like scent), safrole (a natural oil also found in sassafras), cinnamic acid, methyl salicylate (a plant essence with counter-irritant properties), pyrazine, and alkylthiazoles (natural flavors and fragrances derived from plants and vegetables). Each brings its own flavor and/or healing property to the fruit's overall make-up.
Tamarind Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 100 grams of tamarind
Amt. Per Serving
Studies on Tamarind
Known to be useful in traditional medicine for diabetes and obesity, tamarind seed extract underwent examination to see if its high levels of polyphenols and flavonoids might increase glucose uptake in such patients. The positive expression showed a marked anti-diabetic effect, indicating the possibility of formulating a new tamarind seed extract-based herbal drug for diabetes therapy.1
In another study, many of the traditional medical uses for phytochemical-rich tamarind extracts were reported by researchers as useful in modern medicine as well. Successful therapies included: abdominal pain, diarrhea, dysentery, parasitic infections, fevers, constipation, inflammation, gonorrhea, and eye diseases.
Tamarind extracts were also reported to be antimicrobial, anti-venom, antioxidant, wound healing, and effective against diabetes, malaria, and asthma.2
Geraniol, one of the phytochemicals found in tamarind, is found to be one of the substances partially responsible for suppressing pancreatic tumor growth in lab studies, without significantly affecting blood cholesterol levels. In conclusion, scientists reported geraniol as warranting further investigation for pancreatic cancer prevention and treatment.3
Tamarind Healthy Recipes: Coconut and Tamarind Chicken Curry
- 10 skinless, boneless chicken breasts and thighs
- Juice of 2 limes
- 1 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 tsp. turmeric
- 3 Tbsp. coconut oil
- 2 Tbsp. tamarind pulp
- ¾ cups coconut milk
- 1/3 cup (1 can) coconut cream
- 1 Tbsp. chopped or dried coriander
For the Sauce:
- 2-4 Tbsp. coconut oil
- 1½ tsp. mustard seeds
- 1½ Tbsp. fresh or dried curry leaves (opt.)
- 2 onions, finely diced
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2½ Tbsp. minced ginger
- ½ Tbsp. paprika
- Chopped tomatoes (equivalent to 2 small canned tomatoes)
- A few Tbsps. chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 Tbsp. golden muscovado sugar or raw brown sugar
- Mix lime juice, pepper, and turmeric in a large bowl. Coat chicken with this mixture.
- Heat oil in a large skillet. Add mustard seeds, curry leaves, and onions. Stir, cover, and cook on low for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add garlic and ginger, increase heat, and stir in paprika, tomatoes, stock, raw sugar, and dried curry leaves (if using). Cook uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes until sauce has thickened and reduced.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat oil in a skillet and fry chicken until golden. Pour excess oil from frying pan and let cool slightly. Add ½ cup of water to skillet, stir, and use a spatula to add the juice to tomato sauce.
- Place chicken in a roasting pan, pour sauce over it, and then cover and bake for 15 minutes or until chicken is tender.
- Transfer chicken to a serving dish. Place stovetop safe roasting pan on stove on low heat, bring to a simmer, and stir in tamarind pulp, coconut milk, and half the coconut cream. Ladle over chicken, drizzle with remaining coconut cream, and sprinkle with coriander before serving.
Tamarind Fun Facts
In the Bahamas, large but still unripe tamarind fruits called "swells" are roasted in coals until their skins burst open. The sizzling pulp is then dipped in wood ashes and eaten as a quick snack.
It's a condiment. It's a spice. No, it's a bean. The "Manila sweet," as the tamarind is sometimes called, is all of the above. Tamarind seed extract, which is deliciously tangy, is one of the most highly prized foods in Asian and Indian cuisine.
Each 100 grams of tamarind contain impressive amounts of essential nutrients, including 36% of the daily recommended value in thiamin, 35% in iron, 23% in magnesium, and 16% in phosphorus. Other prominent benefits include niacin, calcium, vitamin C, copper, fiber, and pyridoxine, proving it to be a uniquely beneficial food.
Traditional uses for tamarind include relief from stomach and digestive ailments, fevers, sore throat, rheumatism, inflammation, and sunstroke.
Dozens of tamarind recipes, from simple to complex, are available on the internet for those desiring a fresh, unique culinary opportunity. An easy one is tamarind water, used in many Indian and Asian dishes: Just soak prepackaged tamarind paste in water, strain it, and add as part of your liquid requirements to stir fries, sauces, or curries.
However, consume tamarind in moderation because it contains fructose, which may be harmful to your health in excessive amounts.