Friday, November 30, 2007

Tamarinds, by Twain.

November 30 ...

Today is Mark Twain’s one hundred and seventy second birthday. I am not sure, but I think he is the third most often quoted writer who has ever been in the world (after William Shakespeare and Dr Samuel Johnson). His food quotations alone would last a long time as blog-fodder. I like what he has to say about tamarinds: “strangers eat tamarinds, but they only eat them once” – a witty enough one-liner, but the paragraph it springs from (from his story Roughing It) explains why no-one goes back to the tree for a second bite.

“I thought tamarinds were made to eat, but that was probably not the idea. I ate several, and it seemed to me that they were rather sour that year. They pursed up my lips, till they resembled the stem-end of a tomato, and I had to take my sustenance through a quill for twenty-four hours. They sharpened my teeth till I could have shaved with them, and gave them a "wire edge" that I was afraid would stay; but a citizen said "no, it will come off when the enamel does" - which was comforting, at any rate. I found, afterward, that only strangers eat tamarinds - but they only eat them once.”

The tamarind (Tamarindus indica) originated in Africa and from there found its way first to India and the Pacific islands and thence to many other parts of the world with a tropical climate. The mouth-puckering qualities of the tamarind are due to its intense sourness – even when it is ripe it is very sour – and generally speaking it is not eaten from the tree but prepared in some way – as a drink, a sauce, a chutney or pickle etc. Medicinal qualities are attributed to it wherever it is known, and this was the first use of it in the West. It is particularly used in fevers – and no doubt the idea of a hot lemon drink for a cold derived from it, lemons being a more easily accessible sour flavour than the foreign tamarind.

A beverage or infusion of tamarind crosses both borders – the medicinal and the culinary. One gentleman by the name of William Vincent Wells visited Honduras in the mid-nineteenth century, and found it made a very refreshing drink in that hot climate. He called it Tamarind Ambrosia, and described how it was made:

"He [his host, Olancho] also possessed the art, from long practice, of concocting certain delicious drinks. Among these was one to which I invariably paid my respects. It was made from tamarinds, and usually served about noon from earthen jars, wrapped in several thick swaths of flannel, and placed in the draft as a cooling process. The preparation of this beverage was simple enough. From a cask of the fruit, which seemed to have been crushed to a pulp and liberally mixed with the coarse sirup of the country, a quantity of thick liquor was drawn off, in a partly fermented state, and diluted to a drinking consistency, which, when settled, was turned into jars. To this was added powdered cinnamon, allspice, or some fragrant herb (gathered in the neighboring hills), to suit the taste. The liquor, without the spices, is often used during and after fevers."

Most of us in the West know the tamarind as an ingredient in dishes from India, Thailand, and other parts of the mysterious East. Here is a recipe for tamarind preserve “from India” from a little book translated by the Oriental Translation Fund in 1831.

Tamarind Preserve.
Take raw Tamarind, ¼ ser ( ½ Ib.)
Loaf sugar, ½ ser (l Ib.)
Lemon, 1 chittank (2 oz.)
Having removed the skin of the raw tamarind and extracted the seeds, take ¼ ser and make a syrup of the sugar in half a pao (4 oz.) of water, and remove its impurities.
When it settles, throw in the tamarind and cook it, and when it acquires a consistency add lemon- juice, and take it off the fire and cool it ; and keep it, and take it out and use it when required.

Monday’s Story …

Hot Roots.

Quotation for the Day …

Cooking Rule... If at first you don't succeed, order pizza. Anonymous.


Tana Butler said...

Thank you for the Mark Twain. Tasty vittles, indeed.

Tofu Mom (AKA Tofu-n-Sprouts) said...


How have I missed this blog?

I love, LOVE, L*O*V*E food history and trivia. I went thru and read nearly the entire thing tonight... WOW!

I will so definitely be back, again and again!!

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Tana and tofu-mom. I am glad you enjoy the stories and I hope you keep coming back. Tofu-mom, you must have some staying power, if you read nearly the entire blog at one sitting. I do hope you find some old recipes you can veganise. Do let us know if you do!

Catofstripes said...

Twain is a wimp. I love fresh tamarinds and can't get enough of them. Not that they're easy to come by in Europe.