Tamarind is part of the pea and legume family Fabaceae and is known by the scientific name Tamarindus indica. The tamarind tree is native to tropical Africa and Asia, but is cultivated across India, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
It is said tamarind trees were introduced to Australia via Makassar traders in the early 18th century and there are now several native species grown across sub-tropical regions on Australia’s east coast including the large-leaved tamarind (Diploglottis australis) and small-leaved tamarind (Diploglottis campbellii, however they are not related to the African and Asian species.
Growth and harvest
Tamarind trees are very resilient and can withstand drought and wind-borne salt found in areas located near coastlines. The trees thrive in tropical and subtropical regions and should be exposed to dry weather when young to build tolerance against frosts and cool temperatures.
Tamarind trees can be grown via grafting or seeds which need to be soaked for a few days before being transferred into free-draining soil. Germination takes one to two weeks in a warm, sunny environment with regularly watering.
Tamarind trees grow up to 25 metres in height and have wide-spanning branches that fall towards the ground in a curved shape. The trees have dense, evergreen, feather-like leaves that are about 5cm or less in length. Red and yellow flowers about 2.5cm in size grow on trees in small clusters.Brown tamarind pods are pea-like in shape and grow up to 15cm in length and 2.5cm in width. Each pod contains up to 12 tamarind seeds that are coated in a soft, brown pulp which darkens as it ripens.
Flavour and culinary uses
Tamarind pulp has a sweet-sour flavour and can be used ripe or unripe. Unripe, the pulp is very tart and needs to be cooked or pickled before being consumed. It’s often used chutneys, stews, curries, soups, or sweets where it gives an acidic kick. As tamarind ripens, its sourness reduces and is akin to a combination of date, lemon, and apricot. Ripened tamarind is sold in whole pod form as well as a paste, concentrate, extract, and powder.
One of its most common applications is in pad Thai where it is combined with fish sauce, sugar, and vinegar. It’s also a core ingredient of Worcestershire sauce and is a natural meat tenderiser thanks to tartaric acid. Tamarind is a core ingredient to flavour curries and other spicy dishes and is famously used in the Mexican dessert mangonada, which features straw-shaped tamarind garnishes called tarugos.