Tuesday, October 18, 2011

FRUITS OF BRAZIL - Tamarind (Tamarindo)

reconstituted tamarind pulp
Of the many species of tropical fruit trees, none is more widely distributed than Tamarindus indica, which is known in English as the tamarind tree and in Portuguese as the tamarindeiro. Although its scientific name would indicate that it is native to India (indica) it actually originated in the savannas of Africa and still grows wild there. It was carried to South Asian in earliest times and today the Indian subcontinent is where the majority of the world's tamarind tress grow. It is also extensively cultivated in the North and Northeast of Brazil, and was brought to this country from India by Portuguese navigators, traveling from India to Brazil by way of Portugal.

The tamarind tree is valued not just for its fruits, but also as an ornamental tree. The tree is slow-growing and reaches tremendous age and size. It can reach up to 100 feet (30 meters) high, with a spread of 40 feet (12 meters) and trunks have been measured up to 25 feet (approx. 8 meters) in circumference. Its foliage is bright green, fine and feathery. The fruit, which is actually an elongated seed pod, is a velvety light brown with a juicy, acidic pulp surrounding the seeds in immature fruits. In dried, mature fruits, the pulp becomes less liquid and more of a paste than a pulp.

Tamarind pulp is valued in traditional Brazilian cuisine, and in many tropical cuisines elsewhere, for its acidity, which perks up and enlivens a dish just as a splash of fresh lime or lemon juice does. It is an important ingredient in sauces, preserves and chutneys. Part of the flavor profile of Worcestershire sauce comes from the presence of tamarind. The pulp can also be thinned out with water and sweetened with sugar to make a refreshing tart drink. This tamarind "juice" is very popular in the heat of northern Brazil and is considered to have significant cooling properties. Brazilians often "prescribe" tamarind juice for digestive problems.

The tamarind does have scientifically proven medicinal value, for many purposes, not just as a digestive. Because of its high levels of vitamin C it is a powerful antiscorbutic, and the pulp has value as a laxative as well. Native folklore also attests to the hangover-reducing properties of tamarind juice.

Fresh tamarinds are available in supermarkets in some regions of Brazil. In other regions, frozen pulp, completely natural, is available in market freezers and can be reconstitued with water to make juice or merely thawed when pulp is called for.

In upcoming posts, we'll feature some traditional recipes from Brazil which call for tamarind. In North America you can sometimes find fresh tamarind in Latin or Asian food markets, and in those same markets you can find semi-dried pulp in small packages. By soaking this pulp in hot water and removing the seeds you can make your own ready-to-use tamarind.

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