Tamarind is a tropical fruit many in the West haven’t tasted, but it comes in a pod that looks somewhat like a smooth, pale brown bean and inside has a sweetly acidic flavor and a sticky, paste-like consistency when mature. It’s relevant that tamarind, aka Tamarindus indica L, is known as the “date of India.”
Tamarind trees are native to Africa but were transported to India thousands of years ago, and possibly to Egypt as early as 400 B.C., a study in India in 2011 notes, referring to it as “one of the most important multipurpose tropical fruit tree species.” Brought to the Americas in the 16th century, the tree grows extensively in Mexico.
Depending on its use, people in Uganda have used it for as long as anyone can remember, as a snack when it’s ripe; the immature green pods are eaten both fresh and boiled with porridge, rice, fish, and meats to give it a sour flavor. The fern-like leaves are cooked and eaten like a vegetable, and the pulp is sometimes made into wine or combined with other tropical fruits such as guava, papaya or banana.
Tamarind is often used to flavor and thicken sauces, soups, preserves, jams, and jellies. When the fruit inside is ripe, the pods or husks are removed, and the fruit is soaked in cold water to make a refreshing beverage. In the Bahamas, tamarind is roasted on coals and eaten with wood ashes, and it’s a prominent ingredient in Worcestershire sauce and barbecue sauce.
Tamarind has been grown in indigenous cultures of Eastern Uganda for generations, both for food and medicine. It’s been foundational for a number of other functions, from cultural and social traditions to income generation to environmental amelioration. Like most other plant-based foods, tamarind has its own complex and unique compounds that make it beneficial for health.
Polyphenolic Aspects of Tamarind
Studies have recognized the extensive vitamin and mineral content of tamarind, including “a high level of protein with many essential amino acids, which help to build strong and efficient muscles,” significant amounts of calcium, phosphorus and potassium, as well as iron, sodium, copper, zinc and nickel, the latter of which is needed in only trace amounts to enhance your body’s ability to absorb iron, prevent anemia and strengthen your bones to offset osteoporosis.
Thiamine is one of the B complex vitamins that serves to improve your nerve function and muscle development, and a unique compound known as hydroxycitric acid (HCA) can be extracted and used as a spice to suppress your appetite and promote weight loss.14
Tamarind leaves contain a “fair” amount of vitamin C and β-carotene, and high mineral content, particularly phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. However, while both the pulp and the seeds have been revealed as rich in potent antioxidants and other phytonutrients, in some areas, tamarind seeds have been “underutilized” because they were simply discarded. An overarching university study in Kenya in 2017 reveals common medicinal uses:
“Traditionally, tamarind beverage was recommended for convalescents and expectant mothers. Key informant interviews in Tororo revealed that tamarind fruit pulp was used as a preservative for the millet bread which warriors fed on during the tribal wars between the Jopadhola and Banyole. Tamarind fruit beverage was also commonly given to rejuvenate those returning from war.”
One review reporting on the extent of the plant’s “explored potential” also listed the ability of tamarind extracts in traditional medicine, adding helminthes infections (parasites), abdominal pain, diarrhea, and dysentery, wound healing, eye diseases, malaria and fever, constipation, cell cytotoxicity, and gonorrhea. It continues:
“The plant is reported to possess antidiabetic activity, antimicrobial activity, antivenomic activity, antioxidant activity, antimalarial activity, hepatoprotective activity, antiasthmatic activity, laxative activity, and anti-hyperlipidemic activity. Every part of the plant from root to leaf tips is useful for human needs.”
A number of powerful polyphenolics help explain why tamarind has for thousands of years and continues to have such dramatic effects on disease. The Research Journal of Microbiology lists tartaric acid, acetic acid, succinic acid, alkaloid, flavonoids, sesquiterpenes and glycosides as some of the active ingredients in tamarind.
In addition, proanthocyanidins include apigenin, procyanidin, epicatechin, procyanidin dimer, procyanidin trimer and, to lesser degrees, but significant enough to impart positive benefits, taxifolin, eriodictyol, and naringenin, in respective order.
Tamarind Uses and Historical Significance
From planting to eventual harvest is a slow, lengthy process, as the tree — which can reach 80 feet in arid climates, but only 18 to 20 feet high in California — doesn’t produce for four or five years. Once mature, tamarind trees can produce as much as 350 pounds of fruit per year. Harvesting is often accomplished by shaking the tree and gleaning what falls.
The peoples’ “indigenous knowledge of the fruit,” (called “IK” in the study) has been relied on for expanded use, preservation and conservation of Tamarindus indica L, its scientific name. In fact, 18 uses for tamarind explain why at least half the locals assisting in the study grew the tree in their home gardens; however, 52 percent of the tamarind trees were identified by scientists as self-propagated.
Reported nonfood uses for the tamarind tree included shade or windbreaks to protect native homes, building materials, oral hygiene (toothbrushes), textiles, dying, making gunpowder,21 feed for livestock and food preservation as practical functions.