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A sour taste of home*
On tamarind, its history in the subcontinent, & tides of empire
Growing up in Chennai, tamarind was everywhere. Walking to school, I’d find pods of tamarind strewn on the ground alongside fiery red hibiscus flowers. On my walk to and from school, I’d collect as many pods as possible so that my grandfather could dry and shell them and use the seeds to play pallankuzhi, a game where seeds/cowrie shells are dropped into cups carved into a board. My grandmother would then use the leftover pods, soak them in water and use them to wash vessels and the sink. My mother would store blocks of tamarind in two separate coloured plastic boxes to differentiate between ‘new tamarind’ and ‘old tamarind’, the belief being that the older the tamarind, the stronger the flavour.
The word for sour in Tamil, pulippu, is derived from the Tamil word for tamarind, puli. When I went to London to study, I carried blocks of tamarind in my suitcase and my carry-on, sucking on its mouth-puckering sourness on the flight to soothe my nerves. The truth was that I couldn’t recreate home without it, the many dishes I’d grown up with required its use, from sambar, rasam and chutnies. It also has uses that go beyond food: its wood is used to make furniture and mancala boards, it’s used to make a sustainable natural dye for silk and cotton, and it is also used to desalinate water.
The tree, which reportedly lives for over 100 years, is a favourite shade tree of the Road and Buildings wing of the Public Works Department of Tamil Nadu. Officials regularly claim that it is native to the country. Food writer and historian Vikram Doctor told me that the tamarind was “deliberately chosen as a roadside shade tree and planted for that purpose. That ensured those long avenues with tamarind trees, trunks painted with a big red and white stripe, and the bonus of the fruit in season.”
Throughout Southeast Asia, tamarind trees are grown not only for their pulp, seeds, wood and leaves, but also for ornamental, gardening and shade purposes. The tree is known to thrive in tropical/subtropical climates (both humid and arid), which explains why it’s widely distributed and naturalised around the world: from south and southeast Asia to Central America, Egypt, Mexico and Hawaii.
For so long, its scientific name, Tamarindus indica, seemed to be an indication of origin — Arab traders called it ‘tamar-al-hindi’ meaning ‘Indian date’. Marco Polo wrote of its early presence in India in 1298, and Garcia d’Orta in Simples and Drugs of India, written in 1563, described its source from an Indian palm. The tamarind seems to have had a prehistoric presence in India. At least some evidence of this remains: The Nallur tamarind grove, a 54-acre biodiversity heritage site around 40 km from Bengaluru, has around 300 tamarind trees believed to have been planted during the Chola dynasty in the 12th Century.
But for all these records of provenance, the tamarind is not actually native to India but Africa. Its wild ancestor is supposedly a common savanna tree found in abundance from the west to the east of the country. The capital of Senegal, Dakar, derives its name from ‘dakhar’, which is the Wolof word for tamarind. Native to Madagascar, the ring-tailed lemur’s favourite food is the leaves and the fruit of the tamarind, making up almost 50% of the primate’s diet. The tamarind’s origins have long been speculated to range from Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and the Sahelian region of Africa to Senegal and Madagascar. Irrespective of the speculation, the broad consensus is that it is from Africa.
There is little evidence as to when exactly tamarind made its way into the subcontinent, and how it may have been integrated into farming and food.
In Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities, ecologist Harini Nagendra and senior lecturer Seema Mundoli, write that tamarind made its way from central Africa to India millennia ago. “Wood charcoal analysis shows us that the tamarind was found in Narhan, in the Ganga valley, by 1300 BC, and also in the pre/early Harappan period in Haryana. The Brahma Samhita scriptures, dating back to between 1200 BC and 200 BC, also talk of the tamarind,” they write.
Ethnolinguistics too can only point us to the right direction—towards Munda languages, one of the many Austroasiatic languages spoken within central and eastern India, that suggest plants like the jumbie bead and tamarind were present in India either before or during the Early Harappan period. Jumbie bead and tamarind, along with plants such as horsegram, bitter gourd, okra, watermelon, cluster bean, may have integrated into the Indian subcontinent anywhere from 1200 BCE onwards to the first century CE.
In London, after exhausting many blocks of ‘home tamarind’, I settled for the dark sticky paste in plastic bottles that lined the shelves of my local supermarket. Wedged in a corner behind cans of coconut milk (and found usually in the Caribbean or Asian aisles) were a few bottles of tamarind paste. If I really took the effort to travel further to an Asian or an Indian shop, I’d be rewarded with a whole block. Somehow, they were never the same as home tamarind—dark, sticky, tart and sweet in equal measure—which my mother would fish out from a dark corner in the top shelf, pinch a portion out with her fingers, and submerge in tepid water to form a pool of dirt-resembling liquid.
For migrants, ingredients like the tamarind (or mango, chilli or cassava) are useful in establishing themselves in new environments, finding unique and entrenched ways to bridge old and new worlds. In Parvathi Raman’s memoir about her migrant family’s journey to Britain, food not only played a central role in establishing home, it also provided her with ‘frameworks of memory’. She describes this through her trip to Tooting High Street to buy a packet of tamarind, that sour taste every south Indian craves in their food. This act, which anthropologist David Sutton termed as ‘transnational food exchange’, explores food as a key component of ritual, as a means of connecting with home, food, and the land itself.
An Indian-British association with tamarind endures still, in sauces like HP and Worcestershire, considered iconic in British food culture. Both sauces list tamarind (albeit sparingly) in their list of constituents, and both were invented in the 19th century.
Worcestershire sauce, according to the original packaging of Lea & Perrins, was said to have been the result of a nobleman’s travels in Bengal. Epicurious dives into the murky mystery of Worcestershire sauce to find out that it was the product of two chemists’ experiments with fermented fish sauce in their pharmacy, and that it wasn’t as Lea & Perrins’ OG label claimed. It was fermentation, derived from a legacy of garum, which is a fermented fish sauce found in Greco-Roman and European cuisines in the 17th century. In 1899, HP Sauce was devised by Frederick Gibson Garton, a Nottinghamshire grocer, who put together tomatoes, vinegar, tamarind, dates, molasses, and spices. Garton christened it HP Sauce because he heard that a restaurant in the Houses of Parliament in London was serving it.
But are both sauces products of the empire?
It should seem so. Ingredients like tamarind, dates, molasses, and spices—common in both sauces—are classically associated from the lands that the British colonised. Ketchup is just that (deriving from Asian sauces), based on fish sauces brought back by trade that happened in India.
Even though it is widely debunked now, Lea & Perrins still maintain that “a local nobleman requested they make up a recipe for a sauce he had discovered in India”, which, after 18 months of maturation, became Worcestershire sauce. This exoticisation of a condiment, writes Julia Fine, referring to Indian heritage while also naming it after an English city, “is at once both exotic and familiar, safe yet exciting to the British eater”. Worcestershire sauce was also exported to the empire: while fermented bottled sauces that contain spices and sugar keep for long, to consume the imperial in the colony was a preservation of expansive territory.
The tides of empire run in two directions, wrote Felipe Fernández-Armesto. One flows outwards from an imperial centre, creating “cuisines of miscegenation”, which the subcontinent knows as Anglo-Indian cuisine. The second retreats inwards carrying back “colonists with exotically acclimatised palates” resulting in the curries, the Chinese and Indian takeaways, and the brown sauces that structured the way Britain ate. And still eats.
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I’m finally getting through my bookmarks/saved reading since the pandemic (yeah, I know) and I loved this piece about Rilke’s seminal Letters to a Young Poet, and how the correspondence between Rilke and Franz Xaver Kappus is, in fact, universal. Rilke, Anne Lamott, and Wendell Berry are three writers (amongst many) I keep going back to when I feel lonely and uncertain about everything, and their words are comforting. “The future stands firm… but we move in infinite space.”
Pair the above with Rilke on how sadness transforms us.
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Sorry to send this email twice, but in the previous one, none of the links seemed to work. Apologies!*
The first tamarind trees were planted in 1797 according to Julia F. Morton in Fruits of Warm Climates.
The extremely useful volume of Fruits for the Future 1, a hefty 200-page book on the tamarind, details its origin as such.
According to the academic paper Environmental History of Botanical Exchanges in the Indian Ocean World.
The role of food and eating as part of a response to displacement is said by Sutton to help in recreating community and home; a sort of revitalisation.
Craig Claiborne notes in this NYT piece in ‘78: https://www.nytimes.com/1978/04/19/archives/the-saga-of-a-sauce-from-india-to-the-united-states-the-saga-of-a.html
In Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food.
A mixing of cuisines, unintentional, to form a fusion, which can inform the social function of eating.