I was born and raised in Southern California, where we enjoy long growing seasons, mild winters, and seemingly endless sunny days. The Mediterranean climate attracts people from all over the world to our beautiful state, and I’m lucky to call this place home. However, one of the downsides to living here would be dealing with the sweltering summers, when temperatures can rise past 100°F.
When it gets that hot, it’s important to stay hydrated to avoid getting heat sickness. Drinking a nice cool beverage, full of minerals, is a good way to replace electrolytes lost through sweating/perspiration. Growing up, on hot days I would cool down with a delicious juice called tamarindo — which remains one of my summer favorites.
Tamarindo is made from the sticky pulp of a legume known as tamarind (Tamarindus indica) and has a tangy, sweet, and sour taste. It has been enjoyed around the world for centuries, as a refreshing drink and more. If tamarind doesn’t already have an honored place in your kitchen, then I hope that will change after you read this article.
A Short History of Tamarind
Despite a name that literally translates to “date of India,” tamarind actually originates in tropical Africa.1 Throughout the African continent, these large, lovely trees serve as ancestral shrines and meeting places due to both their sacred nature and the shade they provide.2 For millennia, tamarind has held cultural significance as a medicinal and culinary plant: it is this vast application that resulted in its successful naturalization throughout the Old World tropics. Records show tamarind was cultivated in Egypt since at least 400 BC, and is thought to have left Africa during the monsoon exchange.345
The plant’s arrival in the Americas was a consequence of the transatlantic and transpacific slave trades, which accelerated African botanical exchange with the “New” World. Like most other African plants, colonial disbursement of tamarind was solely for the purpose of sustaining enslaved Africans. Once slave traders noted the African use of tamarind to improve water palatability, tamarind became important cargo on oceanic voyages where stagnant drinking water was a common issue.6
Tamarind spread throughout the Americas due to the agricultural initiatives of the Africans living there. As early the 1600s, enslaved Africans were cultivating this plant as a subsistence crop7 to supplement their diets. African market women popularized tamarind beverages among the non-Black populations through street vending8, which cemented the fruit in Latin American cuisine.
More Than a Delicious Drink
Outside of its use as an important flavoring for food and beverages, tamarind fruit pulp is a nutrient-rich dietary staple. It boasts a variety of health benefits, due to being rich in vitamins and minerals such as iron, thiamin, phosphorus, potassium, niacin, and riboflavin.
Due to its ability to keep for years, it is a reliable famine food. As such, nomadic African tribes rely on tamarind to get them through the dry season when food is scarce.910 The pulp isn’t the only edible part of the tamarind. The seeds are edible and can be made into flour or coffee substitutes. The seedlings and young pods are eaten as a vegetable.11
The utility of tamarind extends far past that of a foodstuff: all parts of the tamarind tree are useful. The wood is hard and makes excellent timber and fuel.12 In traditional African medicine, a decoction of the leaf is taken for measles, cough, cold and fever, and used as a wash for pain, wounds, and eyes.1314 The bark is chewed as a gum to relieve hiccups, and used in treating asthma.1516 The fruit pulp is a general health tonic, used for hangover, sunstroke, fever, and constipation.171819 It has commercial application as a meat tenderizer and is an ingredient in steak and Worcestershire sauces.
Tamarind Juice Recipe
There are countless ways to prepare tamarind juice, but a delightful drink can be made with just tamarind and water. A number of ingredients can be added to enhance the sweet-sour flavor of the fruit: ginger, lime, vanilla, Angostura bitters, sugar, and salt. Adding sugar and salt can balance the sour note, while the other flavorings provide added dimension to your juice.
For this recipe, I’ll be using fresh tamarind, which can be found in many Latin American, Asian, and West Indian supermarkets. If you cannot source it fresh, then substituting a compressed tamarind block is fine. In order to fully soften, the compressed tamarind will need to soak in the hot water for longer than the fresh — and possibly simmered on a stove for a few minutes.
What you’ll need…
- About 10 medium-sized fresh sweet tamarind pods (or 1 cup tamarind pulp)
- 4 cups water, divided
- Pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons cane sugar or other natural sweetener (optional)
- Juice of 2 limes, or to taste (optional)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon Angostura bitters (optional)
- Lime slices for garnish
- Break the tamarind pods open and remove the fruit from the hard shell.
- Heat 2 cups of the water, reserving the rest.
- Put the tamarind in a bowl and pour the hot water over. Let sit for 30 minutes or more.
- Using your hand, separate the sticky flesh from the fiber and seeds.
- Mix in the remaining 2 cups of water.
- Strain the mixture by using your hands, or the back of a spoon, to press through a fine-mesh sieve.
- Add salt, sugar, and optional flavorings such as lime juice, vanilla extract, and Angostura bitters.
- Add additional water to adjust the strength of the juice.
- Refrigerate until chilled, about 4 hours.
- Pour juice into a glass of ice and garnish with a slice of lime.
Yield: About 1 quart
- B.M. Schmidt and D.M. Klaser Cheng, Ethnobotany: A Phytochemical Perspective (John Wiley & Sons, 2017), 51. ↩
- Stephanie Rose Bird, A Healing Grove (Lawrence Hill Books, 2009), 44-45. ↩
- “Tamarind,” PROTA4U, Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (PROTA), retrieved Jul 9 2020, https://www.prota4u.org/database/protav8.asp?g=psk&p=Tamarindus+indica+L. ↩
- Dorothy and Bob Hargreaves, African Trees (Hargreaves Company, Inc, 1972), 61. ↩
- Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomof, In the Shadow of Slavery (University of California Press, 2009), 33. ↩
- Carney and Rosomof, In the Shadow of Slavery, 70. ↩
- Carney and Rosomof, In the Shadow of Slavery, 106. ↩
- Carney and Rosomof, In the Shadow of Slavery, 183. ↩
- Schmidt and Cheng, Ethnobotany, 153. ↩
- Lost Crops of Africa, Vol III: Fruits (National Academies Press, 2008), 154-55. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Hargreaves, African Trees. ↩
- James A. Duke, Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America (CRC Press, 2009), 698. ↩
- Cyrus Macfoy, Medicinal Plants and Traditional Medicine in Sierra Leone (iUniverse, 2013), 91. ↩
- Bird, A Healing Grove. ↩
- Macfoy, Medicinal Plants. ↩
- “Honoring The Traditional Afrikan Herbalist Traditional Medicine,” African Traditional Herbal Research Clinic 8, issue 9 (2013): 32. ↩
- John William Fyfe, The Essentials of Modern Materia Medica and Therapeutics (The Scudder Brothers Company, 1903), 70-71, retrieved from https://swsbm.henriettesherbal.com/ManualsOther/Fyfe.html. ↩
- Macfoy, Medicinal Plants. ↩