The food of my childhood is incomplete without the flavor of tamarind: Cycling to school meant sucking on one of the tamarind candies stuffed in my pockets. Meeting friends for paani puri, a crispy fried dough filled with a medley of chutneys, including the ubiquitous tamarind chutney, was a weekly affair. And on the long train journey from Pune in western India to my hometown in Tamil Nadu, I eagerly dug into the South Indian dish puliyodharai, tamarind rice wrapped in a banana leaf parcel.
In Indian cuisine, tangy tamarind plays many roles. It acts as a preservative, a cooling agent, and a remedy—its paste relieves the itchy mouthfeel that comes from eating tubers like yam and taro. It’s also sour and sharp; as Saee Koranne-Khandekar explains in her book Pangat, a Feast, tamarind plays a crucial part in balancing flavors. When added to the lentil vegetable stew sambar and to other curries like puli kuzhambu, which consists of vegetables like moringa pods, eggplant, or okra cooked in a tamarind base, its sharpness contrasts with the spices.
Because tamarind comes in so many forms and is consumed in countless ways, below, I’ll walk you through its wide usage in Indian cuisine, as well as its excellent benefits (tamarind is also an important ingredient in Southeast Asian and Central and South American cuisine).
First off, what is tamarind?
Tamarind is a plump pod-like fruit with a sweet, tangy flavor that is indigenous to tropical Africa. Widely used in India, the word tamarind itself is derived from the Arabic “tamar hind,” meaning Indian date. When the fruit is mature, the pods are opened and deseeded to reveal the dark chocolate flesh, a staple in Indian cuisine.
But every part of the tree is useful: The leaves are used as an anti-inflammatory in home remedies; the wood is harvested for carpentry; and the seeds are pieces in playing traditional Indian board games.
What forms does tamarind come in and how is it used?
You’ll find tamarind in several forms; some are interchangeable in recipes while others are not great substitutes. Raw tamarind, for example, cannot stand in for ripe tam