A Taste of Tamarind

By Allison Fulton, Amara Santiesteban Serrano, and Jeannette Schollaert

Sturdy Contradictions

The grand and imposing hard-wood tree Tamarindus indica, commonly known as the tamarind tree, has long been a contradictory plant: it is at once a place of refuge and site of danger, a medicinal purgative and a culinary shape-shifter, an ingredient in a thirst-quencher and a drought-tolerant species. And while the tree has been documented across historical and literary genres for millennia, its place of origin remains scientifically obscure. Genetic studies do suggest an African origin, though wood charcoal analysis confirms that the tree has inhabited India since at least 1300 BCE, leading some to argue it is indigenous to the region. The tamarind narrative is rooted in so many singular places, but its global circulation speaks to the plant’s long history and steadfast ability to grow in dry and hot climates.

Black and white botanical drawing of tamarind
Botanical drawing of tamarind from Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, 1679. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Such contradictions have been explored through storytelling: the tree serves as creative inspiration, thematic motif, and simple theatrical site across myth, legend, and fiction. The tamarind got its small leaves, according to a Bihar tribal story, when the exiled Lord Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita came upon a tamarind grove, where the tree’s large leaves provided shelter. But Rama was convinced that they were meant to suffer during their exile and so he ordered Lakshmana to shoot at the leaves with his bow and arrow—the leaves have been split ever since. 

Though many cultures venerate the tree as sacred or home to gods, some purport the tree’s curses and dangers; some Indian and Caribbean communities warn that the tamarind is home to spirits. A Hindu legend illustrates how the tree became cursed: one day, Radha, goddess of love and compassion, was on her way to meet Krishna when she stepped on a piece of ripe tamarind fruit bark and cut her foot. Now late for her meeting with the god, she cursed the fruit to fall from the tree still unripe, as it does today. The sheer pervasiveness of the plant in visual, oral, and written cultures across the globe speaks to its mythological status as both sprawling and rooted, exemplifying the sturdy contradiction that is the tamarind tree.

Image from book.
Krishna Woos Radha: Page from the Dispersed “Boston” Rasikapriya (Lover’s Breviary). Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tamarind’s Medicinal and Culinary Uses

Virtually every part of the tamarind tree—seeds, fruity pulp, bark, root, and leaves—is edible in some form. Its fruit contains the rather unusual tantric acid that makes it simultaneously the “most acidic and sweetest fruit.” The acid’s sweet-sour flavoring has a cooling effect in hot weather which makes it a valuable ingredient in a wide variety of dishes and beverages and inextricably links the fruit to warm climates. Moreover, as French botanist Joseph de Tournefort (1656–1708) conjectured, the fruit’s acidity lends itself to uncountable medicinal uses, such as a “purging medicine,” a laxative, an aid in facial paralysis, and a flavoring to make more bitter or unpleasant medicines taste sweeter. 

Tamarind’s resilience has made it a central part of herbal medicine practices across history.  A seventeenth-century oil painting created after a design by the French printmaker Nicolas de Larmessin II portrays three men as the personifications of medicine, pharmacy, and surgery. At the center of the composition, the physician personifying medicine is cloaked in garb that bears the names of medieval authors central to traditional Western medicine, including Avicenna and Mesue, two Persian polymaths credited by Tournefort as key to the spread of knowledge about tamarind. Taking a closer look, just beneath the medicine man’s hand, is a written prescription to treat medical ailments, and nestled within the text that includes “cassia” and “rhubarb,” is none other than “tamarind.”

Tracing the appearance of the tamarind tree’s commonly used parts across materia medica, travelogues, and cookbooks, is a means to track the dissemination of traditional herbal Ayurvedic medicinal knowledge through the peak of colonial expansion, to call attention to the colonial economic interests in T. indica, and to foreground the diverse religious and culinary cultures that the plant sustains.

Windward Islands, Barbados: The Pavilion, Queen’s House, showing the verandah of the Artist’s bedroom (the upper windows) and the covered way to the left leading to Queen’s House, July 28, 1881. The tree in the foreground is a tamarind tree. Image Credit: Yale Center for British Art

Cooking and Empire: Tamarind Recipes

Tamarind is most known for its culinary uses and is a staple in Indian cuisine. During or following their time in the British colonies, white women colonists like Mrs. Carmichael would often feature tamarind in English-language colonial cookbooks. Flora Steel and Grace Gardiner’s 1909 The complete Indian housekeeper & cook, for example, instructs readers to use tamarind water to quench their thirst in the course of their missionary work. The authors refer to tamarind using the Hindi term “Imli,” suggesting that their knowledge of the plant comes either directly or indirectly from those speaking Hindi. The cookbook does not offer any insight into how the British women gained access to the tamarind itself–there are no instructions for harvesting the pods from the trees or even directions for how best to acquire the plant from a market. This suggests that British women could easily obtain tamarind. Some British cooks noted that when unable to import tamarind, they “had to rely on lemon juice (and sometimes sour gooseberries) as a substitute.” British cooks like Eliza Acton even advocated for the importation of tamarind “in the shell – not preserved” in an effort to replicate the cuisines made in India.[1]

[1] Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, 144.


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