Food & Drink

What The Hell Is Tamarind, Anyway?

Say hello to your tart, sticky friend.
10/20/2014 09:21am ET | Updated October 20, 2014

In our next installment of "what the hell is that common thing you know you should know, but are actually pretty clueless about," we're investigating tamarind. You've probably heard of tamarind, but can you describe what it is, exactly? A bean... maybe? A spice... or something? Quit guessing and tune in here. We've got you covered on everything you need to know about this widely-used fruit.

And if you're wondering why you really need to expand your knowledge of tamarind, look no further than chef Yotam Ottolenghi -- pretty much the "it" chef for all things vegetarian right now, as far as we're concerned. Ottolenghi uses tamarind paste in everything; it's one of his "secret" ingredients. If that's not reason enough to get to know tamarind, we don't know what is.

In light of demystifying this pretty awesome fruit and getting one step closer to Ottolenghi, here are 11 things you should know about the stuff:

1
Tamarind is a type of tree.
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The tree grows well in tropical climates, so while it is originally from Africa, today the tamarind tree can be found growing in tropical regions across the globe. It is particularly common in South Asia and Mexico.
2
The tamarind tree produces pod-like fruit, which is also a legume.
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The tamarind tree is leguminous, and is part of the Fabaceae family. Its fruit is called an indehiscent legume, which means it doesn't open naturally at maturity, but remains closed. Inside the pods are a few large seeds and a sticky, tart pulp, which becomes even tarter after the pods are dried.
3
India is the world's largest producer of tamarind today.
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Tamarind is a common ingredient in Indian cooking -- it's used in everything from chutneys to desserts. While India currently produces the most tamarind, it's used all over the world. Thailand and Mexico are also major producers.
4
Tamarind can be consumed fresh or dried.
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The flesh from inside the brittle shells can be eaten from fresh pods, but the pods are also commonly dried. The pulp turns more sour after drying.
5
Tamarind's got a seriously strong flavor.
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Sweet but tart, and sometimes very sour, tamarind is potent. A little goes a long way. While tamarind pulp can be eaten alone, it is most often mixed with sugar and/or diluted to mellow the strong flavor.
6
Tamarind makes a great base for chutneys, sauces, marinades and stews.
Veg Recipes Of India
The pulp can be used as the base for all sorts of savory dishes and condiments, and is used frequently in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Asian cooking. The tangy taste goes far in soups and stews, imparting zingy undertones, and it makes for lively accompaniments -- sweet or savory -- to main courses. Tamarind chutney is popular in North India, and is made by soaking tamarind pods, squeezing the pulp, mixing it with jaggery, a cane sugar found in Asia and Africa made from the sap of palm trees, and spices and cooking it down. Get a recipe for Indian Chutney from Veg Recipes Of India
7
The versatile fruit also makes great desserts.
The pulp can be used as a sort of jam or made into a syrup for desserts. It can also be molded into shapes and mixed or coated with sugar for a simple, sweet and tart candy found everywhere from Myanmar to Mexico.
8
It can tenderize your meat.
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Tamarind's natural acidity makes it a great marinade for meat, because the acid can break down and tenderize tougher cuts. Fine Cooking recommends using a tamarind marinate as a great trick for less expensive cuts: "Marinated overnight in a tamarind-tinged liquid, beef becomes succulent and tender," Fine Cooking says.
9
Tamarind extract is one of the secret ingredients of Worcestershire sauce.
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Don't really know what Worcestershire sauce is? Don't worry. We've got you covered on that one, too.
10
Tamarind also makes refreshing beverages.
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In Mexico, agua de tamarindo -- which is made by boiling tamarind pods, removing the pulp, straining the water, and adding sugar -- is a popular drink.
11
Ottolenghi loves tamarind paste.
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Chef and cookbook author -- most recently of the forthcoming "Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London's Ottolenghi" -- Yotam Ottolenghi told HuffPost Taste that he loves using tamarind paste. He uses "the paste made from the actual pulp (rather than buying a ready-made variety)" to bring savory flavor to his cooking.

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Cinnamon
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Cinnamon, which comes from the bark of a type of evergreen tree, is said to contain more antioxidants than any other spice. Among other feats, it’s been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and to reduce the proliferation of leukemia and lymphoma cancer cells. Now a new study suggests it also may help combat Parkinson’s disease, though researchers have yet to test this theory in clinical trials. According to Kalipada Pahan, the lead researcher of a recent study done at Rush University Medical Center, cinnamon may help to alleviate or prevent the tremors and poor mobility suffered by those with Parkinson’s disease. The key to cinnamon’s power against Parkinson’s is a compound that is turned to sodium benzoate in the liver. The sodium benzoate is then sent to the brain, where it protects neurons and normalizes neurotransmitters.
Oregano
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There are so many good reasons to season your favorite savory dishes with oregano! Among the herb’s attributes are fiber, iron, manganese, vitamin E, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, according to a study done by the Department of Agriculture, on a gram-per-gram, fresh-weight basis, oregano has four times more antioxidants than blueberries. With so much goodness packed in each leaf, maybe the study done by a team of medical researchers in Italyshouldn’t come as a great surprise. The team used essential oil of oregano to kill drug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus. Their study was published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, and the results have inspired follow-up studies to see if oregano may help stem the rising tide of drug-resistant staph infections in the United States and elsewhere.
Black pepper
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It’s rare to find a kitchen without this spice today, but in the ancient world, pepper was rare and valuable enough to be used as a form of currency. A good source of manganese and copper, pepper helps support metabolism and maintain bone health. It also contains peperine, the chemical compound from which it gets its name. TheNational Institute of Health published the results of a study done in Seoul, Korea, where researchers used peperine to halt, and even reverse, fatty liver disease in mice. The findings are important because fatty liver disease is of rising concern worldwide, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is now the leading cause of chronic liver disease in the United States.
Rosemary
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“There’s rosemary, for remembrance,” wrote Shakespeare, and with its sharp, bright scent, the herb is hard to forget. Like most other greens, it’s a nutritional powerhouse, boasting good quantities of minerals like calcium, iron, and potassium, and vitamins including vitamin B6, folate, Vitamin C and Vitamin A. The latter, also known as beta-carotene, is important for healthy eyes. Now researchers at the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute have found that another component in rosemary, carnosic acid, also supports eye health. The research team reported that carnosic acid protects retinas from degeneration, and they believe that the compound may have clinical applications, including helping to prevent or halt age-related macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is the most common eye disease in the U.S., affecting more than 1.75 million people.
Allspice
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What’s not to like about a spice that earned its name by combining the flavor and aroma of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg? Allspice is great in sauces and marinades for meats, is a staple ingredient for jerk seasonings, and it’s equally delicious in pumpkin pie or cookies. And if there’s a man in your life that you care about, you may just want to find creative ways to use a little more of it because there’s growing evidence that it may help combat prostate cancer. A study done at the University of Miami used ercofolin, a compound found in allspice, to kill prostate cancer cells and significantly reduce tumor growth in animals, with none of the adverse reactions commonly caused by other cancer-killing agents. The researchers were so encouraged by the preliminary results that they are designing a follow-up study to determine if allspice may help to prevent prostate cancer altogether.
Turmeric
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Turmeric may be the only spice on this list that isn’t a staple in your kitchen, though you’ve almost certainly heard of it: It’s the spice that gives curry its bright, golden color. The National Institutes of Health report that the health benefits of this spice have been extensively researched for 50 years, and that the past 25 years have shown it to be safe and effective against numerous health conditions, including pro-inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. Curcumin is one of the compounds that give turmeric its clout. A clinical trial conducted at the Nirmala Medical Centrein Kerala, India (also published by the NIH), showed curcumin to be as effective as a prescription drug in relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, with no adverse side effects. The Indian team used standards established by the American College of Rheumatology to evaluate the reduction of tenderness and swelling in the joints of their patients.
Sage
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If you’re a woman of a certain age, you may have read that the phytoestrogens in sage can help to relieve hot flashes. But growing evidence suggests that it may also address a more serious condition often associated with age: Alzheimer’s disease. An analysis of eight studies conducted on the effects of sage (the herb’s active compounds Salvia officinalis L. and Salvia lavandulaefolia L, to be precise) was published earlier this yearby the National Institutes of Health. In all of the clinical trials studied, sage was shown to increase cognitive performance. Two of the studies were specific to patients with Alzheimer’s, and sage was found to decrease the effects of the disease. Moreover, no adverse reactions were found. More studies are needed, but it seems that there may be more than one reason to add sage to the menu.
Nutmeg
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What’s a glass of eggnog on New Year’s Eve without a dusting of nutmeg on the top? Turns out, ounce for ounce, nutmeg is much more mind-altering than rum! In addition to B-complex vitamins and vital minerals like copper, iron and zinc, nutmeg contains myricistin, a powerful hallucinogenic drug. Using the spice in small quantities is considered safe and may even be beneficial, but nutmeg abuse can lead to serious complications, including death. Yet the same component that makes nutmeg potentially dangerous seems to be helpful in small quantities. A clinical trialconducted by a team of Indian researchers (who used animal models) found that myricistin was as effective as two commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs, and significantly relieved symptoms of depression in just three days. More research is needed, but the idea that something so fragrant and delicious is also good for us is uplifting news.
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