One day a colleague offered me a small round burgundy ball wrapped in cellophane, which I could eat. I accepted it and tasted the sweet for the first time. It was very tasty so I asked what it was. Everyone looked at each other, and finally someone told me that it was “imli”, but no one knew what the English name was. I had come across imli at home, but not like this. At home we used imli which was brown, sticky and had date-like stones. We use it in sauces with meat.
I decided to investigate this fruit on the internet and discovered that it is tamarind. I had often used it in curries in Britain, where we buy tamarind paste in small jars – minus stones, and not looking at all like a fruit. In Pakistan there are two types of tamarind, or imli, the bitter kind, that I am familiar with and the sweet variety. Young girls apparently are very fond of the sweet fruit, and eat it in secret, as it is believed that it increases breast size.
The tamarind tree is not a native of the Indian subcontinent, but it has a very long history here. It is mentioned in the Hindi epic the “Ramayana”, which was written in the 4th century BC. There it explains how the leaves got its feathery shape:-they were split by the arrow of the hero Lakhshmana. Krishna had a profound spiritual experience while sitting under the tree too, it is said. He had become separated form his beloved Radha, and while he sat under the tamarind tree he felt that his whole body was infused with her spirit. Hindus also associate the tree with Yama the god of death, and people give the tree a wide berth at night, as they believe the spirits of the departed haunt it. The roots from the tree make the soil very acidic, so few plants grow under it, so perhaps that’s why people are suspicious of it.
It is used in traditional medicine on the subcontinent to treat diabetes and intestinal infections, and a gargle can be made from the pulped seeds and salt when you have a sore throat. Western medical research has found that tamarind strengthens the immune system and reduces fever. As so often is the case, modern research proves that time-old remedies work, and the ancients knew a lot about herbal treatments. Here people boil the leaves lf the tamarind tree and use these to relieve sprains and swellings of the joints. The leaves are also used as animal fodder.
Tamarind has other uses too, as it is mixed with henna-based hair dyes to deepen the colour, and Indian silversmiths use an infusion of the roots to clean and polish their silverware. The wood from the tree is used for fuel, so every part of the tree is useful. It is used in cosmetics and toiletries, and in the West it is used as a food flavouring; for example it can be found in Worcestershire sauce. They say that the honey produced from the tamarind flower is superb, but I have yet to try that.
So imli is tamarind in English; that might help if you encounter recipes which are written by the people who made the first ‘curries’.
by Lynne Evans