One of the year’s biggest celebrations of all things chocolate and candy is quickly approaching. Easter is the time when supermarket shelves are laden with Easter eggs of every size and filling.
However, in years gone by, residents had neither the resources nor the access to such fancy (and often expensive) Easter delights. Instead, they had to rely on locally available produce and a bit of ingenuity in order to get their fix of sweet treats.
Tamarind balls have been a staple favorite among generations of Caymanians. The confections are a unique sweet and sour experience that can be quite addictive once you get past the searingly sour notes of the tamarind itself.
The mighty tamarind tree
While the tamarind tree can be found all over Cayman, the tree is actually indigenous to tropical Africa, but it is also thought to be indigenous to India, where it has been cultivated for as long as anyone can remember. Nowadays the tamarind tree can be found all over the tropical belt, from Africa to South Asia, Northern Australia, and throughout Oceania, Southeast Asia, Taiwan and China. In the 16th century, the tree made its way over to Mexico and South America, brought there by Spanish and Portuguese colonists, and was enjoyed so much that the tamarind became a staple ingredient in that region’s cuisine.
The tamarind tree is distinctive because of its pod-like fruit, which is used extensively in cuisines around the world. Tamarind is also the “secret” ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, giving it that unique and highly sought-after piquancy. Other uses include as herbal medicine and metal polish. The tree’s beautiful red wood can be used in woodwork as well. Because of the versatility of the tree, people all over the subtropics have put its bounty to good use.
A unique flavor
The fruit of the tamarind tree has a fleshy, juicy, sweet yet sour pulp. It is mature when the flesh is brown or reddish-brown, and it gets its sour notes from a high amount of tartaric acid. It also contains sugar, B vitamins and calcium. Tamarind pods look very similar to bean pods, with a dry brown outer shell and sticky, tart and sweet fruit within, along with several seeds in each pod.
In years gone by, Chris Christian, a local proponent of Caymanian arts and heritage through his Cayman Traditional Arts initiative, says tamarind pods were simply picked off the tree and the flesh eaten there and then.
“Local tamarind trees were always plentifully heaving with tamarind pods. I remember as a child shaking a tamarind tree until the pods fell off, or picking the pod directly off the tree, especially when the pod was green and still very sour. We’d crack open the shell, peeling off the string or vein, and then squeeze the pulp and seeds together with a bit of salt before popping them in our mouths,” he recalled.
“You wouldn’t eat the seeds, though; you would spit them out, which was all part of the fun!”
Caymanians used to use the wood from the tamarind tree in unique ways, Christian said.
“They used to keep a tamarind switch at the police station. If someone had been caught committing certain crimes, like petty thieving, part of their punishment would be a few lashes with the tamarind switch.”
How to make tamarind balls
Alirio, a teacher with Cayman Traditional Arts, teaches schoolchildren across the Cayman Islands the art of making tamarind balls, among other wonderful local sweets and candies. Tamarind balls are a particular favorite of the Caribbean, in places such as Jamaica and Trinidad, where they are consumed with relish, most often as a sweet, but sometimes combined with hot sauce to give a fiery and satisfying snack.
Note: It’s important to use only soft, sticky ripened fruit in this recipe.
Makes around 30 small tamarind balls
- Approximately 20 tamarind pods
- 1 cup white granulated sugar
- Extra sugar for sprinkling
Break open the tamarind pods and carefully remove the pulp and seeds. Throw away any rotten ones. Remove the string or vein from the pod by pulling it away from the pulp and then discard; you will be left with soft sticky brown pulp and seeds. (If you cannot be bothered to prepare the tamarind pulp directly from the pod, you can buy blocks of tamarind pulp, which are just as good, but you will need to soak them in hot water first to soften before using in this recipe.)
Place the tamarind pulp and seeds into a bowl with the sugar and mash together with a spoon until fully mixed. Now comes the fun part! Roll out heaping teaspoon-size dollops of the tamarind/sugar mixture, then roll the balls in extra sugar for decoration and extra sweetness. Bite into the soft sweet-and-sour balls and remember to spit out the seeds! Tamarind balls can be frozen if not consumed right way.
As a tasty addition, why not try making tamarind juice for a cool, refreshing drink with a tang?
In the same way that you mash the tamarind seeds and pulp with sugar to make the balls (or use a softened block of tamarind pulp), do the same with two cups of tamarind pulp and two tablespoons of sugar.
Then add two quarts of boiling water to the mixture and allow it to steep for a good while, preferably overnight in order to extract the most flavor. Strain and add some ice, and maybe a squeeze of lime juice or a spoonful of honey, a pinch of powdered cinnamon or even a sprinkling of grated fresh ginger.
Then drink the cooled tamarind juice, maybe with a slice of lime for good measure. A delicious way to cool off on a hot day.