Next to genips, my deep affection for which we outlined here, my other all-time favorite island fruit has got to be tamarinds. Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around discovering a hidden tamarind tree laden with fruit while trekking through the bush on some imaginary exploration mission with my brothers. Finding tamarinds was akin to finding treasure; a reward for our quest. This is actually quite fitting as the mighty tamarind itself had to undertake quite a mighty quest just to get to the Caribbean at all.
Like the majority of people living in the Caribbean today, tamarind trees are indigenous to Africa and only started appearing in the region in the 16th century. We have the Spanish to thank for proliferating the fruit trees throughout the islands, where they quickly became a part of everyday cooking, medicine and carpentry.
On the culinary side, tamarinds are used to make an assortment of jams, juices, chutneys, syrups, ice creams, candies, and other goodies. If you’ve ever enjoyed a juicy steak with Worcestershire sauce, you’ve had a taste of tamarind. (Check the ingredients, it’s in there!)
Personally, I love to eat tamarinds straight off the tree. Just pop the shell open, suck the fruit down to the seed, spit and repeat, and repeat, and repeat.
Eat too many tamarinds, though, and you’ll soon realize the primary medicinal use of the fruit – it’s a potent natural laxative. (Hmm, better watch those repeats!) It follows, then, that tamarinds are used to treat people suffering from worms, indigestion and other gastrointestinal disorders. Surprisingly, though, it’s also said to be effective against inflammation of the eyes, fever, morning sickness among pregnant women, rheumatism, sore throats, joint swelling and more. Some even say it makes a great sunscreen, something to think about if you’ve stranded on a deserted island.
The tamarind flavor can be a bit jarring on the sour side for untrained palates, especially if they’re not quite full-ripe when you discover a tamarind tree during your next uncommon travel adventure. To add some extra sweet to the sour, try this recipe for tamarind balls.
First, remove the tamarind fruit flesh from its shells. You’ll need a 1/2-cup of fruit, so figure on cracking a good number of shells. If you can’t get your hands on any fresh tamarinds, or you want to go an easier route, try using a tamarind paste like this one. Next, mix the tamarind flesh with a full cup of sugar (white or brown is fine), and roll ’em into smooth balls, about 3/4 inches in diameter. Finally, roll the balls in a bit of granulated sugar and store ’em in an airtight container.
Some people add salt, garlic powder or hot pepper for added flavor, but for me, simple is best when it comes to tamarind balls.