Saturday, November 7, 2009

Memories of Tamarind

I grew up in the Fordham Road section of the Bronx. In the seventies a large influx of Puerto Rican immigrants moved into the neighborhood and brought their food and their culture with them. On hot summer days a petite man dressed in jeans, a white cotton undershirt and an old straw hat would park his shaved ice cart at the entrance of St. James Park and 191st Street. This gentle and grandfatherly man would remove a small hand-held bell that hung on a metal hook at the side of his cart and deliver his refreshing offering like a carnival barker, “Coco Helado! Coco Helado! Ice-ee! Ice-ee!” When his voice reached the fourth story window of our Bronx kitchen I’d make a run for it.

I was loyal to Mister Softee ice cream during the week, but on weekends I preferred the sight of brightly colored syrups in transparent bottles that embraced a huge hunk of ice on José’s “Coco Helado” cart. At first I had some trepidation because José didn’t speak English and I had to infer the taste of the syrups by their color and the Spanish words written on masking tape that marked each glass bottle. I started with coconut, graduated to cherry and then discovered something I had never tasted before; tamarindo. The brown-colored syrup had no relationship to the colors of the rainbow which were responsible for attracting children to the cart. Tamarindo was murky, flecked with pulpy brown bits and didn’t resemble familiar fruit. I was on the verge of choosing pineapple when the response of a girl who ordered tamarindo shaved ice made a strong impression on me. I didn’t have to understand what she said to José after she took her first taste. I only had to see the smile on her face and the joyful pucker of her mouth. I learned what “refresca” and “dulce” meant that day.

My memories of tamarind went into hibernation when my family moved to the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx in 1984. I was in college then and when I returned “Coco Helado” carts were rare sightings in the neighborhood. When they did show up the brightly colored bottles were gone, replaced by frozen containers of coconut ices that would be scooped into paper cups by hand. They were creamy and delicious, but they did not deliver the refreshing sweet and sour taste of my beloved tamarindo.

Over the years the Lydig Avenue section in Pelham Parkway has become an international food market. You can find ingredients used in Asian, Albanian, Croatian, Dominican, Indian, Jamaican, Jewish, Mexican, Pakistani, Russian, Puerto Rican, and West Indian cooking along a stretch of four blocks that extend from White Plains Road to Barnes Avenue. My childhood memory of tamarind was that of a sweet and sour fruit diluted with copious amounts of sugar and water, poured over shaved ice and eaten on hot New York summer days. Finding the fruit in refrigerated section of a Key Food Supermarket on Lydig Avenue was a eureka moment; I hesitantly experienced the fresh fruit at The Fancy Food Show in New York City this summer and didn’t expect to encounter it again this year.

Eating sweet tamarind is delightfully addictive. The delicate pod cracks easily between the fingers, revealing a network of veins that support a soft brown pulp. (When extricated in its entirety, the protective netting resembles the fragment of an exoskeleton one would expect to find in a cabinet of curiosities.) The pulp, which has a few large seeds, is similar to a date in texture and color, which is why the Arabs refer to the native Indian fruit as Tamar Hindi (date of India). The flavor of sweet tamarind is familiar yet otherworldly. Woody notes of prune, orange, apricot, black tea and pumpkin evoke the honeyed sweetness of wet autumn leaves; something one does not expect to find in a tropical fruit. A faint trace of tartness lingers in the finish, paying homage to the sour cultivars of tamarind found in India.

I would never have tasted tamarindo if it wasn’t for José and his colorful “Coco Helado” cart. It prepared me for future encounters with tamarind in Worcestershire sauce, chutney and Thai Tamarind Candies that make the mouth water with a simple combination of sour tamarind pulp, sugar, salt and chili. Knowing what true tamarind tastes like ties a string from one flavor memory to the next. It makes me wonder what my next tamarind memory will be...


To learn more about the ethnobotany of Tamarind visit Plant Cultures.

For a step-by-step guide on eating fresh sweet tamarind visit Food Mayhem.

Botanical image of tamarind is drawn from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen.

Image of a broken up tamarind pod by Michelle Krell Kydd.

Select Key Food supermarkets sell Wangderm Brand sweet tamarind in the refrigerated section. Wangderm Brand’s distributor, Vasinee Food Corporation, introduced the product at this year’s Fancy Food Show in New York City.