How My Love Affair with Khatti-Meethi Tamarind Continues...
I fell in love at the young age of six, and the love affair continues. It was a case of love at first bite when I tasted the sun and salt.
We were at our grandmother's place that summer. While playing hide and seek, we stepped onto the terrace. I noticed rich brown tamarind balls placed on the sheets in the sun to dry. My cousin scooped a ball, tore a piece and offered it to me. It melted in my mouth with a sweet, sour, and salty flavour, and I was hooked!
From that day until we left, I would run upstairs many times in the day to eat tamarind. I closed my eyes to let the flavour seep in. It was a pure joy for my taste buds.
Even though tamarind defines the flavour of summer in India, it is a native of Africa and belongs to Dicotyledonous family Leguminosae, the third largest family of flowering plants.
The word ‘tamarind’ is derived from a Persian word – ‘Tamar-i-Hind’ – which means ‘Indian date’ due to the similarity in appearance. First documented proof of tamarind is found in Egypt around 400 BC. It is mentioned in the Indian Brahmasamhita scriptures of the 1200-200 BC. Ancient Tamil literature and Vagbhata’s Astangahrdaya (600 AD) also mention the tree.
Every year, my grandmother purchased tamarind in the season. Pitting the tamarind was done with heavy stones. After shelling, the long dangles of tamarind were mixed with salt, rolled into balls and dried for a week. The dried balls are stored in big china clay (chini mitti) jars, ensuring the supply of tamarind for the year.
It was used to prepare sweet tamarind chutney, ‘Sonth’ for dahi bhallas/vadas and Gol gappas. The sight of curd soaked urad dal vadas, sonth, roasted cumin powder and red chili powder made us drool. My aunt would place two vadas in a plate and add the creamy curd, elaborately and neatly.
Gol gappas or pani poori cannot exist without tamarind chutney. These are crisp hollow balls made from wheat, maida or semolina, and are filled with soaked boondi, spicy potatoes, mint chutney, and sweet tamarind chutney laced with black salt. A large heap of perfectly puffed pooris would be waiting for us in a big cane basket for an afternoon snack. We would wait patiently at the dining table to have a chance to fill the pooris as we liked. It was a gala time experimenting with the assortment of colourful fillings arranged in the tray from mashed potatoes to boiled moong sprouts to mint chutney, sonth and curd.
Though the origin of gol gappas or pani pooris is obscured, it is believed that the dish originated in one of the Mahajanpadas of the Kingdom of Magadh. According to another legend, it was Draupadi who invented this dish in exile, when she had a ball of wheat dough enough for one poori, using tamarind and mint from the forest.
A tamarind tree near a water-body is believed to be haunted. A huge tamarind tree next to a dilapidated house with a well, close to my childhood home, was supposed to be the perfect abode for ghosts and evil spirits. We would look longingly at the hanging ripe fruit from far, but had no courage get the fruit.
Every year we witnessed the seasonal transformation of this tamarind tree. One week we could see the tree with just few dull and dusty leaves. The very next week we would be greeted by a brilliantly green tree from top to bottom, without any glimpse of a branch or twig.
Tamarind added richness to our food and conversations. On dark nights with no moon, the silhouette of the tree near that huge unoccupied mansion would fire our imagination, fueled by strange stories floating around.
Few years back, my childhood house was sold, and I lost the contact with that tree. However, those days stay in my heart as my affair with tamarind continues. I narrate stories of imly days to my daughter when we prepare sonth. The stars in her eyes bring back the joy of my childhood.
(Nupur Roopa is a freelance writer, and a life coach for mothers. She writes articles on environment, food, history, parenting and travel.)