Cooking in the Tropics: Tamarindo
Yesterday just before sitting down to lunch on the beach, I stepped on a ripe tamarind pod. My friend, a longtime resident of Tamarindo and a very competent Indian cook, confessed that he had never seen a tamarind pod – he always buys his tamarind in a brick.
The tamarind tree is native to tropical Africa and is extensively cultivated in tropical areas throughout the world. The trees were brought to the Americas in the 16th century, and are now grown in Mexico, Central, and South America. Tamarindo was named for the tamarind trees that are found along the beaches and roadways of our town.
Tamarinds are slow growing and long-lived trees with very deep roots. They are great shade trees and are normally evergreen, but may shed all of their leaves during a very arid dry season. Once we were sitting at Nogui Bar when suddenly a tornado blew through town and into the bay, separating some of the fishing boats from their moorings. Don Nogui suggested that our best option – what any native to Tamarindo would do to keep from being blown out to sea – was to grab hold of the nearest tamarind tree, right there in front of his restaurant. Twenty years later that same tamarind tree is still there, despite beach erosion and many storms, its roots still anchor it to the beach, and the tree, more horizontal than vertical still produces a lot of tamarind pods. (Incidentally, Nogui attributes the rising population in Tamarindo to that very same tree. He thinks that once someone has walked around it, they will get the irresistible urge to pull up roots elsewhere and move to our little town.)
Tamarind pods look like peanuts. When fully ripe, the shells are brittle and easily broken. The pulp dehydrates to a sticky paste enclosed by a few coarse stands of fiber. The pulp has a pleasing sweet/sour flavor and is high in both acid and sugar. It is also rich in vitamin B and high in calcium.
Agua de Tamarindo is a favorite fruit drink here in Costa Rica. You can buy tamarind pulp in the grocery store, or you can buy tamarind in bricks, with seeds. To make your own pulp, dissolve the brick in two cups of boiling water. When the brick is softened, pour the liquid through a wire mesh sieve, pressing on solids until all the liquid has passed through. The pulp tastes like tart plums, and most people add simple syrup to the pulp to make a very cooling refresco.
The same basic recipe can be used to make tamarind sorbet: Combine two cups of pulp made from a one-pound package of tamarind with a cooled simple syrup made from ½ cup of water and ½ cup of sugar. Add 1½ cups of water (sparkling water makes a lighter sorbet). Make sure the mixture is very cool before freezing it in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions.
If you don’t have an ice cream machine, you can make a tamarind granita by pouring the sorbet mixture into a 3-quart shallow nonreactive container (a glass pyrex casserole dish is perfect for this) and freezing the tamarind syrup, stirring and crushing lumps with a fork every 30 minutes, until evenly frozen, about 2 hours. Or freeze in popsicle molds.
The Del Salto brand of jams and hot sauces made in Liberia makes a delicious Salsa Guanacaste from tamarind and papaya. They also make a delicious mango and tamarind chutney. One of my favorite sauces is made from tamarind and raisins, pureed in a blender with a cup of water, grated fresh ginger to taste, a dash of cayenne pepper and a little salt. Delicious as a cocktail sauce for shrimp, or as a dipping sauce for potato samosas.
Searching the web, I found lots of recipes from around the world that utilize tamarind to add a sweet and sour note: tamarind ketchup, pad thai, whole fish cooked Indonesian style and many Indian curries. In Western cuisine, tamarind is an ingredient in HP Sauce. The present-day “Original Worcestershire Sauce”, which still bears the names of its inventors (Lea & Perrins) is made of malt vinegar, molasses, sugar, shallot, garlic, tamarind, clove, anchovy essence and meat extract.
According to Wikipedia, tamarind has a variety of medicinal uses. It is used as in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for gastric and/or digestion problems, and in cardioprotective activity. Excess consumption has been noted as a traditional laxative. Other medicinal uses include: Anthelminthic (expels worms), antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, asthma, astringent, bacterial skin infections (erysipelas), boils, chest pain, cholesterol metabolism disorders, colds, colic, conjunctivitis (pink eye), constipation (chronic or acute), diabetes, diarrhea (chronic), dry eyes, dysentery (severe diarrhea), eye inflammation, fever, food preservative, food uses (coloring), gallbladder disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, gingivitis, hemorrhoids, indigestion, insecticide, jaundice, keratitis (inflammation of the cornea), leprosy, liver disorders, nausea and vomiting (pregnancy-related), paralysis, poisoning (Datura plant), rash, rheumatism, saliva production, skin disinfectant/sterilization, sore throat, sores, sprains, sunscreen, sunstroke, swelling (joints), urinary stones, wound healing (corneal epithelium).
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.