Tamarind or Indian date (Tsamiya in Hausa; Icheku oyibo in Igbo; ajagbon in Yoruba): An unappreciated tropical plant
Tamarind or Indian date (Tsamiya in Hausa) is one of the great trees of the tropics. Everywhere it grows, people enjoy the curiously sweet-sour pulp found inside its brittle, gray or cinnamon-brown pods.
That pulp is sucked out as a refreshing treat, or mixed into myriad (many) drinks and sauces. Its tang especially blends with the fire of chillies, a marriage lending many tropical dishes their distinctively tart, sweetly biting savour.
History books often say this plant hails from India. The common name, too, derives from the Arabic tamar-u’l-Hind, or date of India.
Even the scientific epithet (name) “indica” reflects this old belief in its place of origin.
But for all this literal association with India, tamarind is actually African. The wild version is a common savannah tree and can be found over a huge area stretching from the Atlantic to beyond the far edges of Central Africa.
The capital of Senegal is named for this native favourite, which in the local Wolof language is called “dakar.” This tall legume has long been integral to African culture.
For millennia, people have crushed the fruit pulp in water to form a paste, which they then employ for “souring” their bowls of sorghum or millet gruel. Women in the Sahel, for example, slip in some tamarind when making the gel-like porridge (normally called toh) that is a daily staple of millions.
Although its main product may seem like a rather minor food, tamarind has been called a tree of life. In this regard, an important feature is that its fruits can be stored away and served later – especially during the dry season when fresh fruits are scarce or non-existent.
FULANI nomads, for example, preserve the sugar-rich tamarind pulp in the form of sun-dried cakes, which they rely on for sustenance while moving across the Sahara sands.
Modern Africa has been far from backward in advancing this fruit.
Already, tamarind-based soft drinks are favourites in many places. In Mali and Burkina Faso, for example, such drinks (both fresh and carbonated) rival the ubiquitous (ever-present) Coca-Cola in popularity.
This is great since Coca-Cola does not contain any vitamins and minerals. Among other things, they are featured in up-market restaurants.
And Mali’s own concentrated tamarind syrup is said to sell better than fancy fruit syrups imported from France.
The country is itself exporting tamarind drinks to Europe, where they can be seen selling well on the streets and even in the bars of Paris and Rome.
Up to 50% of the pod weight of tamarind consists of pulp, which contains both sugars and tart organic acids. Though reputedly richer in sugar than any other fruit (30-40 percent), the pulp usually tastes quite tangy.
The acidity is largely due to tartaric acid, whose levels sometimes approach 12 percent of the pulp. However, there is much variability among different trees; some fruits are almost acid free, others so sour as to pucker the mouth.
Notably, sweet cultivars have been selected in Thailand (these varieties can be seen on the shelves of supermarkets in the USA, European countries and the Caribbean region), and these are highly prized.
As the pod ripens its acidity hardly decreases, but sugar levels increase until they more or less match the sourness.
Hence tamarind is said to be simultaneously the most acidic and most sweet of fruits. The dry pulp also consists of about 4 percent protein, and 1 percent fat.
Though it contains negligible amount of pro-vitamin A (can be used to produce vitamin A in the body), it is a good source of the B vitamins thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin.
While the high acidity might suggest a good antiscorbutic (fighting the disease of the gums that makes them easily bleed when touched), numerous tests have found that neither the ripe nor the green stages contain significant quantities of vitamin C.
As to minerals, the calcium value – sometimes above 0.1 percent – is reportedly the highest for any fruit. The phosphorus and potassium contents are also unusually high, averaging respectively about 165 and 900 mg per 100 g dry weight.
For this reason, Tsamiya can be recommended for people with hypertension or elevated blood pressure, because potassium counteracts the activity of sodium.
In fact, it is easier to ask patients to increase the consumption of foods rich in potassium than to ask them to consume a low-sodium diet.
Pods of tamarind can also be high in iron, averaging about 4 mg per 100 g dry weight.
This could make them useful in countering anemia among children and women of reproductive age, especially in developing, where consumption of foods of animal origin is quite low.
The leaves, with a protein content of 3-4 percent, make a vegetable of modest nutritional merit. They are supposedly, however, a good source of pro-vitamin A, calcium, and phosphorus.
The seeds are about as high in food value as maize or wheat. They contain about 60 percent starch, 15 percent protein, 5 percent oil, and small amounts of sugar. The protein is high in essential amino acids, which our body is not able to produce, so we have to consume them with foods on a daily basis.
Other Uses of Tamarind
Tamarind withstands the assaults of city smog and, thanks to a deep and extensive root system, weathers violent storms.
It also tolerates the salty air of coastal locales. Its crown of drooping branches bears graceful, feathery foliage, giving it a handsome appearance and making it outstandingly useful for beautifying parks, backyards, boulevards, markets, and country roads.
It is a much-beloved shade tree, both on account of its evergreen foliage and its dense crown.
In India, for instance, stately tamarinds throw shade over thousands of villages and millions of grateful travellers every day.
For these reasons, alone, it holds much promise in tropical reforestation, especially for plantings in places where people live, work, congregate, and crave a spot of refreshing shade (when I was a kid back in Dengi, there were 2 tamarind trees near the Dengi dam, where on Fridays people congregated and sipped their burkutu drink. I wonder whether these trees are still in existence).
And the living tree offers many more possible benefits.
It is especially promising for reclaiming deforested and damaged lands and restoring them to health and productivity.
The Nigeria Authorities are presently using Tamarind in anti-desertification programs because it has an ability to grow in arid climates and to resist savannah ground fires.
In India also, strips of tamarind are planted among forest trees to act as fire-breaks.
And tamarind trees have notable promise for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, because they typically stand for centuries – not just because their physiology permits it, nor because they also resist droughts, fires, typhoons, and salt spray, but because people hate cutting down tamarind trees.
For all these reasons, governments of tropical countries should encourage farmers to breed this plant.
These are the thoughts of:
Sa’eed Halilu Bawa
Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad.
Studied Food and Nutrition Sciences, Dietetics at Kaduna Polytechnic, Nigeria; Warsaw University of Life Sciences, Poland.