Picture a tamarind pod. Peanut-shaped and suede-like, it contains a complex flavor sensation that is tangy and sour with a hint of mellow sweetness, almost like a ruby red wine.
Nestled inside, is the tamarind paste: That secret ingredient that set Coca-Cola on its fizzy feet and gave Worcestshire sauce its distinctive flavour.
The word "tamarind" conjures up sensuous images of romance, flowing saris and exotic curries; of novels, movies and the sultry Omar Sharif (he starred in the movie The Tamarind Seed, remember?) But what exactly is tamarind, I hear you ask. Join me as I peel away the outer shell of this prized ingredient and shine a light on an unforgettably luscious seasoning.
Once upon a time, I had no idea what tamarind was. I knew it was something used in cooking but that was as far as it went. And then I moved to Bali. I saw it appear in oh-so-many dishes, from curries, soups and spice pastes, to the ubiquitous rujak, the chili-tamarind snack of the nation.
Soft, mushy and loaded with large black seeds, tamarind is otherwise referred to as "the date of the east", and is like the devoted partner of palm sugar; the swarthy Romeo who serenades sweet Juliet, the star-crossed lovers of a culinary kind.
When the sun starts its slow descent and resigns itself to a lazy afternoon in Bali, my kitchen staff start grilling shrimp paste and preparing the sweet, sour, salty, spicy team that make up rujak. Fresh chilies are ground with salt and char-grilled shrimp paste, followed by a generous serve of tamarind and palm sugar. Finely sliced fruit adds the finishing touch or rather, crunch, resulting in a marriage made in heaven.
Rujak can be best described as tamarind chutney with fruit. I love it tossed with pineapple and cucumber, while my daughters love it mixed with grated carrot and tomato. A serve of Rujak will kick-start your engine and get you moving into top gear. It is a little like a shot of caffeine but is refreshing and exhilarating. Rujak is one of the best introductions to the glory of tamarind.
In Bali, tamarind trees are dotted around the coast, their generous branches and delicate leaves providing a welcome relief from the blinding sun. In Singaraja, they line the main highway, like guards in jungle foliage, their huge trunks painted uniformly with a bold white stripe. Tamarind trees can be seen around Ubud and one of the largest ones sits hovering over the graves at the north Ubud cemetery.
Surprisingly enough, the tamarind is native to tropical Africa but seemingly jumped ship and landed in India, along with just about every other exotic ingredient known to Asian cooks. Mahatma Gandhi claimed it was a cure-all, containing such high doses of vitamin C that he believed all you needed was a chunk of tamarind a day to keep the doctor away.
Meanwhile, the health benefits of tamarind are endless. As with most blackish-colored ingredients it is a good source of iron, is said to purify the blood and is a mild laxative. It is used for soothing a sore throat, is considered effective as a digestive and when mixed with salt, is used as a liniment for rheumatism.
And this is the one I love: tamarind assists in weight loss and features in many diet products.
But it doesn't stop with the pulp. Tamarind pods contain compounds which have recently been found to boost the immune system while tamarind leaves and flowers, dried or boiled, are used as poultices for swollen joints, sprains and boils. Lotions and extracts made from them are used in treating complaints from conjunctivitis to dysentery, jaundice and hemorrhoids.
Even the bark of the tree is regarded as an effective astringent and tonic and an infusion of the roots is said to aid chest complaints. Clearly, Gandhi was right*
The culinary achievements of tamarind are equally impressive. Tamarind tenderizes and can turn the toughest meat into a soft, purring mass. And don't ever think of making a curry or laksa without it. Just a teaspoon or two is all you need to transform any meat or seafood dish into a sublime culinary joy.
Tamarind is also a global guy who mixes with all sorts of cuisines. When I am making a recipe that requires red wine for example I call on tamarind to do the job. Next time you are making Osso Bucco I dare you to try adding tamarind and not the precious vino rosso (who can afford it in Indonesia anyway*). Or try some palm sugar and tamarind with wok-fried Portobello mushrooms. Enak banget* I have been told you can also use tamarind leaves in cooking.
Such a tall, dark and handsome tree also carries a shade of mystery. It is said that an Indian will never sleep under its
branches for fear of evil spirits and certain African tribes consider it sacred. To some Burmese, the tree is said to represent the dwelling place of the rain god.
But I love tamarind most of all for its hug-me texture and multi-layered flavour. On a hot day, a heaped tablespoon of fresh tamarind with chilled soda water is one of the most refreshing drinks on the planet. Add palm sugar if you can't stand seeing those two separated.
In the meantime, here is a recipe for rujak. I hope you will love it as much as I do*
(Tamarind fruit salad)
2 small chilies
1/2 tsp shrimp paste, roasted
3 Tbs tamarind
1/2 cup palm sugar syrup
sea salt to taste
Grind the chilies with the sea salt and roasted shrimp paste until the chilies are coarsely broken down. Add the tamarind, mix together as much as possible. Then add the palm sugar syrup. Check the balance of sweet, sour, salty, spicy.
Mix the rujak with apple, pineapple, cucumber, mango, Japanese pear or jicama. Fish sauce can be added if you don't have shrimp paste in the cupboard. Kecap manis can be used with palm sugar.
Palm sugar syrup can be made by boiling a round of palm sugar with a cup of water and reducing until small bubbles appear in the surface. Strain into a clean jug.
Janet DeNeefe is the owner of Casa Luna and Indus Restaurants, author of Fragrant Rice, and founder and director of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. She also runs the Casa Luna Cooking School. She can be reached at jdeneefe*gmail.com.