Friday, May 17, 2013

Make Tamarind Pickle While The Sun Shines

A ripe pod of tamarind 
Tamarind or Tamrhind (Indian date, as Arab traders named this dark, fleshy pod) has filled every nook and corner of my house.  It peeps out from myriad plastic packets that have been stuffed in cupboards, boxes, buckets and even reclines gracefully at the entrance, catching my eye and reminding me to do something about it.

Neatly packed, ready to go!
I like many things about tamarind - the beautiful trees that flourish in tropical weather, overflowing with tiny green leaves, the creamy yellow-red flowers and most of all the fruit, with its tongue puckering sourness.  I can never resist picking up fallen pods, breaking them open and popping a piece into my mouth and cringing as the sourness makes its presence felt.  It's not often one comes across old venerable tamarind trees any more; for some unknown reason  people have stopped planting them (perhaps they take up too much space) but I always get a burst of nostalgia on seeing a large tamarind tree.  I have spent many happy hours under these ancient trees (beginning with a wonderful tree near the West End Hotel swimming pool in Bangalore in days when one could happily wander around such places, gathering fallen pods under the indulgent eye of a waiter with large moustaches, who had nothing much to do other than serve the evening diners).

A tree of many seasons
Tamarind tree in bloom
To return to the present, the reason tamarind pods are flooding my house is that this is the harvest season.  Some weeks ago, I received a gift from a friend - tamarind that had just come off his tree.  It had barely been cleaned and retained  its 'fresh from the tree' appearance.  It was undoubtedly delicious just as it was, however there is a limit to the amount of fresh tamarind one can consume daily (unfortunately, this figure is inversely proportional to one's age).  The tamarind was too good to be used for cooking, hence I decided to make a pickle.  There is a Bengali pickle made with tamarind and, after some probing, I was fortunate to be sent an old family recipe from Kolkata.  Tetul is the Bengali word for tamarind; it sounds quite poetic, especially when compared to the mundane Hindi 'imli'.  Tamrhind, of course, has a more dashing ring to it, though I can't say that this fruit reminds me much of dates (and the tree is actually a native of tropical Africa though its scientific name is Tamarindus indica).

The second reason I am flooded with tamarind is because a couple of weeks ago, another friend called to say that she had harvested some tamarind from her farm and could I find out if anyone might want some?  Since then, I have become a sort of sales agent, commissioning and selling packets of farm fresh, organic, sun dried tamarind.  This has been a pleasant exercise, helping me renew contact with several acquaintances and friends.  Some people have reserved many kilos and are yet to come and collect it and as my friend only visits the city once in a while, the bags repose in my house, awaiting their new owners.  I am pleased to mention that I successfully sold all the tamarind but at the end of it we realized she had barely broken even!  Next year, the prices will be fixed more wisely (but we have generated a lot of goodwill this season)!

Now, to the pickle.  I'm sure better recipes exist and I will need to optimize this one.  I have modified it a little, for as many old family recipes go, the original recipe was a mere outline.  After hearing  horrific tales of my husband's grandmother, who purposely left out one key ingredient each time someone asked her for a recipe, I requested members of the current generation to verify this recipe before sending it.  It turns out that no one makes tamarind pickle any more.  So I cannot guarantee that this method produces a 'genuine' Bangali pickle, but it tastes fine and is as good a way as any, to eat tamarind without blowing out your taste buds.  Here goes:

250 g tamarind, fresh off the tree (with outer pod and seeds removed - you can use store bought stuff too!)
250 g jaggery dissolved in a cup of water, boiled and strained
1 Tablespoon panch phoron (a mix of spices, see footnote) (I roasted and lightly pounded this)
2-4 whole red chillies (or to taste), powdered (I de-seeded and roasted them first)
2 Tablespoons mustard oil (see footnote)
50 g salt (I mixed regular and rock salt to make it less salty, I think 30 g regular salt should probably do)

Use as many (or as few) chillies as you like
Jaggery - a key ingredient
Mix all the ingredients in a clean, dry, non-reactive bowl (I used glass).  Place in the sun for 2-3 days (bring it in each night and cover it tightly with a muslin cloth).  You get a gooey mix, that turns more solid as days go by.  Transfer this to one or more clean glass jars that have been sterilized with boiling water and thoroughly dried.  The flavour of the pickle will mature over time (it tastes sweet, sour and spicy).  The pickle can be stored at room temperature.

A gooey mess!

The recipe called for raw turmeric powder and mustard oil, a great Bengali favourite that is dabbed on this and that, 'just to be sure'.  While I omitted the turmeric, I fell for the mustard oil, thinking that it might have been included as a preservative or to provide a distinctive Bengali flavour.  As soon as I tasted the raw pickle, I felt the oil was a mistake; it just doesn't go with the rest of the flavours.  I console myself with the thought that its sharpness will be beaten down by the sun and the other ingredients over time, and this seems to be the case (perhaps it will also repel the ants).  The one omission in the original recipe was - salt!  Needless to say, this is essential, for various reasons.  I put in a little extra for good measure but one can tone it down.

Coming to panch phoron - the Bengali five spice mix - this is sold in markets commonly in the east and is now available in Bengali markets in various parts of the country.  Last year, over a family dinner, we were discussing where one could buy the best panch phoron.  Each woman had her own special source and when it was my turn, there was just silence.  On prodding, I revealed that I always made my own, which was the best possible - and got pained looks from all and sundry!  But, it's true!  No one makes panch phoron at home now though it is trivial to do - you end up with good quality spices mixed in the ratio you desire and not some arbitrary packet of condiments.  Opinions about the constituents of panch phoron vary.  The basic ingredients are fenugreek (methi) seeds, cumin (jeera) seeds, nigella (kalonji or kala jeera) seeds, fennel (saunf) seeds and either black mustard (sarson) seeds  or radhuni (no clear English translation for this, the closest seems to be wild celery) seeds, in equal amounts.  I vary the ratio a little, to suit my taste.

My panch phoron
Well, that's it!  I left the pickle in the sun, praying for the absence of clouds, monkeys and ants!  No joke, these fervent entreaties of mine.  During the day, a part of my time is spent monitoring the sky and changes in bird call (that imply the advent of monkeys or rain), evening are spent anxiously scouring the surroundings for ants, which appear silently, swiftly multiply to form an army and march into anything they see, including drinking water (this being summer).  The elements play an important role in the making of a good pickle.

Pickle, innocuously sunning 'midst the lilies
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