Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Tamarind Drink: A Tart and Refreshing Beverage With Roots in Africa

Tamarind Pods

The fruit of the Tamarind evergreen tree (Tamarindus indica) is a seed pod that contains a fragrant but sour pulp. While the tamarind is native to Africa, it spread to India as early as the prehistoric days and is now grown all over the tropical world. Tamarind has been used historically as a medicine, but it also has an extensive culinary history.

Tamarind pods grow in clusters and contain very small beans which are surrounded by a sour pulp. The pulp is compressed into a cake and can then be turned into a paste or syrup/concentrate. The processed tamarind can then be used in many different culinary applications. For instance, many Indian dishes such as chutneys and curries contain tamarind paste; the syrup can also be diluted with sweetened water and made into a drink; and, with the addition of honey or sugar, the pulp can be made into a sweetmeat candy. The majority of Westerners, however, probably know the taste of tamarind without even realizing it because it is a key base ingredient in the ever-popular Indian inspired but very British condiment, Worcestershire Sauce.

The history of tamarind in the USA stretches back to the colonial days. According to food historian Michael Twitty in his 2006 book Fighting Old Nep: The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders, 1634-1864, Africans in Maryland, particularly those who could trace their ancestry to the Wolof people or other related people living in the dry savannas of northern Senegal, would have definitely known about tamarind and its many uses. Twitty recounts a literary vignette in his work to describe a possible market experience Afro-Marylanders may have had in the 18th century. He writes about how Afro-Maryland men, who returning to their plantation from a trip to Annapolis to sell their goods at market, surprised their wives with the purchase of . . . 

" a few groceries bought at a store. Red rice, coconuts, peanuts, white rice, tamarind, ginger, spices, and various tropical nuts . . . ."

Advertisements for imported groceries abound in the 18th century newspaper The Maryland Gazette and proves that tamarind, along with other foreign goods, were highly sought after in the colonial market town of Annapolis.

Here is a 1767 advertisement including tamarind:

For a taste of the past, present, and future, try tamarind for yourself with this easy recipe:

Recipe for Tamarind Drink 
1 Quart Water
1 - 1 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1/2 Cup Tamarind Paste (click here for link to purchase this)

  1. In a saucepan, mix 1 cup of the sugar into the water and bring to a boil. Whisk to make sure all of the sugar is dissolved.
  2. Add the tamarind paste and whisk. Taste and add more sugar, if desired.
  3. Refrigerate this mixture until completely chilled.
  4. Serve.
Note: You can alter the measurements of the ingredients in this drink to suit your particular tastes--make it stronger, sweeter, or weaker!

Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food. New York: 2002.

Michael Twitty, Fighting Old Nep: The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders, 1634-1864, 2006.


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