This post is also available in: Dutch.
During the almost 9 months that I write articles about nature of our small island, Curacao, lots of requests have come my way to write about local fruits of the island. A fair question, given the major role local fruits and fruit trees have played for the population throughout the ages, and the food culture which evolved and became enriched over the years.
My father tells many a story about the importance of fruits for public health in general and the hungry bellies of poor families in particular, facts that in modern times are often carelessly ignored. As a boy, growing up in Maridol (between Post 5 and 6 just west of the refinery), and son of a very hot-tempered father who often sat at home unemployed, it was only too often that the 12 boys and girls of the family went to bed hungry. The fruit trees in the courtyard around the house and in the neighborhood, now for the most part destroyed by encroaching development, were the vitamin bombs which were the salvation for these children. And on some of these trees I would therefore like to elaborate. Starting with the well known and still acclaimed tamarind.
Taxonomically the tamarind belongs to the kingdom of plants, the phylum of the land plants, the class of seed plants, the family of the Fabaceae – flowers that look like a butterfly (the photo of the flower makes this quite understandable) and the species Tamarindus indica. It’s a good thing that scientists opted to use this Latin name worldwide because the common names of the plant vary enormously. In 1753, the plant was scientifically described by the famous Linnaeus, who proudly lay a claim on the name with a capital L.
In Dutch, we know the plant and the fruit as Tamarinde, based on the English Tamarind. The origin of this word lies probably in the period when English mariners visited the coasts of Oman for the first time, on the way to India. Once there, they asked for the fruit that formed the basis for what was then packaged as a dark brown sticky paste which closely resembled ripe dates. The locals informed them that it was Thamer hind, which translated to Dates of India. The British registered the word as tamarind. In Indonesia, the plant is called ‘Asem’, in Hindi ‘Imli’, in Spanish ‘Tamarindo’, in the Philippines ‘Sampaloc’, in Ghana ‘Dawadawa’ and on Curacao ‘tamarein’.
The tamarind tree is native to Africa. East Africa, to be precise, where the plant, among others, is native to Sudan. Thanks to the wanderlust of man, the seeds of this tree have spread throughout the globe, because the special properties and applications of the wood, leaves and fruits were already known quite early in time. This already happened before the European explorers left their countries to ‘discover’ new ‘worlds’. Because the plant originates from tropical areas it was cultivated widespread in tropical countries, even in countries with a dry and hot climate, something the tree can deal with pretty good. Although this tree does not grow very rapidly, within 4 to 6 years it can start producing the first fruits. Large, mature trees can produce even hundreds of kilograms of fruit per year.
Much can be done with the tamarind fruit. Locally, we know the warapa or tamarind extract, but also tamarind syrup, tamarind in funchi and tamarind candy. Few people know that tamarind pulp is an important seasoning in the popular Worcestershire sauce. In addition, it is used worldwide, but especially in Asian cuisine, in cooking as a spice and ‘meat tenderizer’. The fruit, bark and leaves are often used medicinally. This also holds true for our island, explains Dinah Veeris on her website. The leaf of the tamarind is used to prepare tea, that together with the juice of a lemon is taken against a cold. But there are many other uses of the plant against various ailments. For example, there are indications that substances in the leaves have anti-bacterial properties, and that the fruit might have a positive effect on blood sugar and cholesterol levels. There is not enough scientific data about the influences on people to actually demonstrate this, however, but many swear by it. There are many other applications in different countries where the fruit occurs and is being used. The fruit pulp is not only used as food or medicine, but even as a cleaning agent or to polish metals with. The hardwood the tree produces is excellent for making furniture and wooden floors.
In many countries the fruit is grown commercially. Including in India, where huge amounts are produced on a yearly basis, but also in the USA, Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico. It serves not only as a production tree, but also as a shade tree or as an element in the landscaping around homes and in parks.
Often, local people mention both sweet and sour tamarind trees. There seem to be a number of trees to be present on the island, which, in comparison with the average tamarind tree, produce particularly sweet fruits. It is possible that this tree is descended from a cultivated variety from Thailand, which was specifically bred to serve as fruit trees, with fruits far sweeter than the normal variant.
The trees may reach a height of up to 15 meters, and sometimes even more. But the plant grows slowly, and a tree of great height is therefore often quite old.
The leaves of the tamarind are oval shaped and the feather-shaped branches close during the evening, just like the leaves of the Dividivi or Wabi.
It is relatively easy to plant the seeds. This can be done by planting them in a jar with soil, but by first cooking the seeds briefly they germinate faster. Even seeds that have been stored for months in a dry place can still be made to germinate. By allowing the young plants to grow in good conditions it is possible to harvest the first fruits within 4 to 6 years. Just plant one (or more) of those seeds, you will not regret it.