What is tamarind?
Traditional and folk medicines have long embraced the healing benefits of certain foods. Whether you eat chicken soup to ease cold symptoms or sip chamomile tea to calm frazzled nerves, certain foods have always been known for improving health.
Tamarind, a pulpy fruit used as a seasoning, has been popular in cooking and healing worldwide. Common in tropical climates, the tamarind tree produces a podlike fruit that adds a tangy flavor to all kinds of dishes. It has also been used to relieve pain, settle stomach discomfort, and calm fevers. Researchers today are discovering that tamarind can provide more health benefits than were previously known.
The tamarind is the fruit of the tamarind tree, a tropical evergreen species. The trees are known for their long life spans and dense foliage. The fruit is technically considered a legume, though it’s often called a pod. The pods are about 4 to 6 inches long and contain soft, pulpy fruit. The fruit takes many months to ripen, and it can be used at any stage of ripeness.
Tamarind pods start out green and tender-skinned, and the fruit inside is very sour and acidic. As they ripen, the outer skin turns brown and grows brittle, so it’s easier to crack. The fruit darkens to reddish-brown and develops a sweet and sour flavor. The longer the pods are left on the tree, the more the fruit loses moisture. The pulp eventually dries to a sticky paste widely used in cooking.
Experts believe tamarind trees originated in Africa, but the species has been cultivated in other tropical climates for centuries. You can find varieties of tamarind trees in India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Central America, and Brazil. It’s most commonly associated with Indian cuisine, but the fruit is used in cooking wherever the trees are found.
What are the health benefits of tamarind?
Tamarind has been used as a folk remedy for years in multiple cultures. It’s traditionally used as a digestive aid, fever reducer, and pain reliever. Depending on the desired effects, it can be administered orally as a drink or powder or applied as a poultice.
Researchers have examined tamarind to understand its healing properties. Studies show that it has promising applications for common health issues.
Like many dark-colored fruits, tamarind is rich in polyphenols and flavonoids. These nutrients are known to have positive effects on cholesterol levels. Consuming tamarind can help in the breakdown and uptake of LDL cholesterol in the blood and increase HDL cholesterol. Balancing cholesterol levels can help overall cardiovascular health.
Antioxidants are substances that can prevent cell damage. They can counteract the effects of free radicals, which are implicated in cellular changes that may lead to cancer. Tamarind is rich in antioxidants. In animal studies, researchers found that tamarind extract can reduce the damage caused by renal cell cancers.
Improve liver health
In traditional medicines, tamarind was considered a remedy for “biliousness” and other liver-related complaints.
The immediate effects of consuming tamarind soothe indigestion and nausea, but contemporary research shows that the fruit may positively affect liver health. The tamarind contains antioxidants called procyanidins, and experts believe they protect the liver and counter fatty liver disease.
The anti-inflammatory effects of tamarind were likely why it was used as a topical analgesic for wounds. The tamarind could bring down swelling and pain at the wound site. Researchers today have found that it can reduce internal inflammation, which has health benefits. In particular, the anti-inflammatory effects may improve blood sugar regulation for people with diabetes.
How can you prepare tamarind?
If you live in an area where tamarind is plentiful, you can buy the fruit whole. Tamarind is edible at all stages of ripeness. The immature, unripe fruit is sour and can be added to meals with fish or rice as a flavoring. In the Bahamas, people enjoy roasting the mature but not fully ripe pods and eating the hot pulp. Fully ripe (but not yet dehydrated) tamarind is delicious without any preparation.
Once the tamarind pods have ripened to the point of dehydrating, the pulp can be converted to a paste and preserved. You may find it in prepared sauces and chutneys, and tamarind paste or dried pulp can flavor other dishes. You can purchase tamarind pulp as a paste or in dried blocks. The commercially prepared pastes may be only tamarind or contain salt or other seasonings.
In cooking, tamarind can add flavor to sauces or other dishes. The paste can be added directly to any recipe. If you buy dried tamarind in blocks, you will need to rehydrate it by soaking it in water, then strain it to remove any fibers. Tamarind paste is a common ingredient in African, Mexican, Indian, and Asian cuisine. It adds a sweet and sour tang to foods such as pad thai, curry dishes, or soups and stews.
You can also find tamarind in sweet foods such as ice cream, sorbet, jams, and jellies. In places like Puerto Rice, tamarind syrup is a popular flavoring for shaved ice. It can even be fermented into wine.
Side effects of tamarind and other considerations
Tamarind is generally safe to eat unless you have certain existing health conditions. It is a legume, so if you have a food allergy to legumes, you should talk to your doctor before adding tamarind to your diet. If you do not have a diagnosed allergy and have a reaction after eating a dish with tamarind, see a doctor to be tested for allergies to legumes.
Tamarind can have a laxative effect, leading to stomach discomfort or dehydration in the event of severe diarrhea. In some people, tamarind can lower blood sugar. If you have diabetes, be cautious when consuming tamarind.
If you want to get the health effects of tamarind, simply start adding it to your diet. You can find new recipes that contain tamarind or tamarind paste or experiment with adding them to your favorite dishes for a new flavor twist.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine: "Tamarindus indica and its health-related effects."}. BBC: "Top 6 health benefits of tamarind."
Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry: "Characterization of N-diethylnitrosamine-initiated and ferric nitrilotriacetate-promoted renal cell carcinoma experimental model and effect of a tamarind seed extract against acute nephrotoxicity and carcinogenesis."
Purdue Horticulture: "Tamarind: Tamarindus indica."
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