It might seem that imli is nothing exceptional, just a little souring agent but believe me, by the time you browse through this, you will find that imli is not just a pod that sours but a mature fruit that is painstakingly grown, harvested, stored and marketed.
The English word ‘Tamarind’ comes from the Arabic tamar-ul-hind for ‘Indian date’. A tamarind tree can take ten to fourteen years to bear fruit and then will continue to do so, in the right conditions, for another forty to fifty years, bearing on an average about hundred fifty kilos of pods in a lifetime. That the tree can live up to a hundred fifty years is another story. So if you ever come across any red bold wooden furniture or wooden flooring made from tamarind wood, know that it is sturdy and priceless!
Tamarind or imli as we call it at home, is excellent for health. Do you know a home remedy for a cold? Some refer to hot clear chicken soup but even better is a tamarind-pepper rasam that is best had steaming hot. All you need to do is boil absolutely diluted tamarind water with a teaspoon of hot ghee and half a teaspoon of black pepper powder for a few minutes. As you begin to sip this, the nose and eyes will begin to water and the nasal blockage will be cleared. And that is a real relief when you are feeling miserable with a stuffy nose.
Imli has its uses in the kitchen and outside the kitchen too. The latter is a short list - it is used to shine up the brass utensils and remove the dull green hue due to oxidation. In the kitchen, it rules in the South Indian homes. Imli, let it be sour and fruity, marries well with chillies and gives many South Indian dishes their hot-sour character. Think about pulusu and puliyodharai and sambhar and they are excellent examples of importance of tamarind. Andhra cuisine has a pickle made using tamarind flowers.
Personally, I enjoy having imli ka amlana which is a cooling drink made with tamarind water, spices and mint leaves. And most importantly, chaats could not and would not survive without khajur imli chutney! What else can give chaats that perkiness, that rounded sweet-sour character?
Outside of India, tamarind can be seen extensivley in Mexico and South East Asia. In Thailand, there is a carefully cultivated sweet variety with little to no tartness grown specifically to be eaten as a fresh fruit. A popular Thai preparation Pad Thai sometimes includes tamarind for its tart taste (though lime juice and/or white vinegar are more commonly used). Mexicans have tamarind in various snack forms, where it is dried and salted, or candied. Tamarind pulp is an important ingredient in the western Worchestershire sauce and HP sauce.
What we usually buy off the shelf is dried tamarind and tamarind paste. The latter is a shortcut to soaking the dried tamarind in water and extracting the pulp. To store your stock of dried tamarind at home, just mix with salt and keep in an airtight jar.
There are times when we see the odd pheriwala selling his khatta stuff of kamrak, ber and fresh pods of imli…more likely near school and college premises. Though I may not be buying his wares today but in my yester days I did!
Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. He is Chef extraordinaire, runs a successful TV Channel FoodFood, hosted Khana Khazana cookery show on television for more than 17 years, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurateur and winner of several culinary awards. He is living his dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering women through power of cooking to become self sufficient. His recipe portal www.sanjeevkapoor.com is a complete cookery manual with a compendium of more than 10,000 tried & tested recipes, videos, articles, tips & trivia and a wealth of information on the art and craft of cooking in both English and Hindi.