Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) is one of the great trees of the tropics. Its feathery foliage is common from Senegal to Singapore, Suriname to Samoa. Everywhere it grows, people enjoy the curiously sweet-sour pulp found inside its brittle, gray or cinnamon-brown pods. That pulp is sucked out as a refreshing treat, or mixed into myriad drinks and sauces. Its tang especially blends with the fire of chilies, a marriage lending many tropical dishes their distinctively tart, sweetly biting savor. The famous cuisines of South India (e.g., vindaloo) and Java (satay ayam) are good examples. Westerners recognize the tamarind taste mainly from the well-known Worcestershire® sauce, Jamaicans from their world-famous Pickapeppa® sauce. It is also a common “secret” ingredient in barbeque sauces.
History books often say this plant hails from India. The common name, too, derives from the Arabic tamar-u’l-Hind, or date of India. Even the scientific epithet “indica” reflects this old belief in its place of origin. But for all this literal association with India, tamarind is actually African. The wild version is a common savanna tree and can be found over a huge area stretching from the Atlantic to beyond the far edges of Central Africa. The capital of Senegal is named for this native favorite, which in the local Wolof language is called “dakar.”
This tall legume has long been integral to African culture. For millennia, people have crushed the fruit pulp in water to form a paste, which they then employ for “souring” their bowls of sorghum or millet gruel. Women in the Sahel, for example, slip in some tamarind when making the gel-like porridge (normally called toh) that is a daily staple of millions.
Although its main product may seem like a rather minor food, tamarind has been called a tree of life. In this regard, an important feature is that its fruits can be stored away and served later—especially during the dry season when fresh fruits are scarce or nonexistent. Fulani nomads, for example, preserve the sugar-rich tamarind pulp in the form of sun-dried cakes, which they rely on for sustenance while moving across the Sahara sands.
Modern Africa has been far from backward in advancing this fruit. Already, tamarind-based soft drinks are favorites in many places. In Mali and Burkina Faso, for example, such drinks (both fresh and carbonated) rival the ubiquitous Coca-Cola® in popularity. Among other things, they are