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057: Tamarind - Seeds, Leaves and Fruit

Flat, deep-maroon seeds embedded in tar. Their square shapes resemble caricature caterpillars on the road. My toddler tries his best to wry them out of the human-made pathways with his tiny fingers. But they remain stuck, almost fossilised. A fusion of stubborn seeds and mortar, an amalgam of ‘nature’ and ‘civilization’. They carry in them ancient journeys, across continents and oceans from tropical Africa. In English, they have adopted the name of their new homeland - the ‘hind’, christened by date (tamar) loving Arab traders.

My toddler and I look up and see the delicate, feathery leaves shimmering in the morning light. Half of the tall, expansive canopy is a light, bright fluorescent green. A green that sings the music of spring. A green that quietly unfurls from tight births. A green that heralds new beginnings. A green that will soon be swirled into rasams, be ground into pachadis, and be sun-dried to make podis. A green that I had never paid attention to before. A green that I met only this spring. A fresh and cooling green.

The other half of the canopy is a deep, dark emerald. Borne witness to an entire season, the leaves float leisurely to the ground. When the wind picks up, they caress us with a drizzle. Once they reach the bottom, they morph into a soft carpet of spent yellow. The tapestry does little to hinder determined black ants as they collect food and build homes. My children pick up the dried amber leaves by the fistfuls and throw them at each other, shrieking in delight. An impromptu nature-made confetti.

In front of us lies a mountain of cinnamon-coloured pods. Some intact. Some broken to reveal a soft reddish-brown pulp. When the fruit was young and green, it had fused itself with the husk. Now mature, it separates out from its bark-like shell, ready for new adventures. Fibrous veins trace a skeletal map inside, and hold the concentrate in place. The pungent smell hangs in the air and assails our nostrils.

Five migrant labourers nestle in the generous, shade-giving tree. They have been camping here for two weeks. The men hit the branches with long sticks and coax the last few pods onto the ground. Another uses a small hook attached to a pole to dislodge the capsules. One of their group is still asleep under a rough blanket. Nearby the women-folk have made a makeshift fire. The smoky hearth protected between large stones. Their common breakfast boils in a single aluminium pot. They chatter in a language that's between Kannada and Telugu. The women will collect the pods and add them to the ever-growing mountain. Soon the workers will migrate to another location, and the leaves will begin their journey into a new season.

I pick up a couple of the pods, and easily crack open their brittle covering. I bite into the semi-dry, fibrous marrow and chew on the pliable, soft seeds. Bits of the bark add a crunchy texture in my mouth. Sourness with hints of sweet dances a tingling duet on my tongue. My face puckers and my eyes narrow. I involuntarily reach out for another bite of the tamarind. And savour the tangy flavours of summer.

Further research:

  1. How tamarind seeds have inspired traditional jewellery and temple art

  2. Roasting tamarind seeds to eat

  3. Playing board games with tamarind seeds

  4. Pachadis and podis made out of tamarind pulp (raw and ripe) and tender tamarind leaves

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