A Tangy Harvest

Nest of a purple-rumped sunbird

This post appeared as ‘Tangy Tips from the Tamarind,’ an article for ‘Rooting For Nature,’ my monthly column in Deccan Herald. I am sharing it here with more images. The published column is linked here.

The tamarind tree shook vigorously for a whole minute. It then went still….and then shimmied again, and again, grooving to a beat I couldn’t hear.

It was a late February afternoon. I was rousing from a nap after a sweltering half-a-day on the field and the sight of a tamarind tree gone mad outside my window was befuddling.

Mercifully, this was no possessed tree from the horror flick Poltergeist, but just our expert tamarind harvesters shaking the tree to loosen ripe pods.

Like everything in nature, our ten tamarind trees lead busy lives through the year. I eagerly wait to see what they are up to during every trip.

So here’s what I learnt of the tamarind’s year-long journey, from dainty bud to sticky brown condiment, a staple in most Indian kitchens.

Our trees and their brethren in the region — there are many by the wayside and on neighbouring farms – adorn themselves with delicate pink buds in April, to coincide with Ugadi festivities. The buds soon bloom into gorgeous, red-tinged yellow blossoms. The trees set fruit and tiny green pods appear in October during Dasara. The raw green pods grow in size and ripen over the chilly winter months.

Delicate tamarind blossoms

Between February and March, when the Sun is northward bound, our ten beauties stand studded with chocolate-hued sweet-sour tamarinds. The gummy insides turn a deep amber with brittle outer shells. Fruit bats and parakeets throng the trees to feast on the tarty treats.

It is that time of the year when our stock is especially high in the neighbourhood, thanks to our fruiting tamarind trees. The village plumber, mason and electrician, who otherwise vanish without a trace during emergencies on the farm, resurface with lease proposals to harvest our fruit-laden trees.

Harvest-ready tamarind pods

Tamarind harvesting and processing is a summer’s cottage industry around Navilu Kaadu and follows the winter horse gram harvest season. Village roads transform into tamarind drying yards. It is a laborious affair and women, men and children of all ages join forces for what is a family enterprise.

During the pandemic, with schools and offices going online, we decided to harvest and process tamarind ourselves.

We spread bright blue tarpaulins beneath the canopies of nine of our tamarind trees to catch falling pods. The tenth tree by our southeastern boundary had house guests, a pair of nesting purple-rumped sunbirds.

We left the tree with its pods intact, and its residents undisturbed. It is an immense privilege to be able to make such decisions, while our fellow farmers live precariously on the edge, trying to make the most of every harvest for reasonable profits.

The nest of the purple-rumped sunbird hangs among ripe tamarind pods

Back to our harvest, the nine tamarind trees received mighty shakings like the one that shook me out of my snooze.

Fruits stubbornly clinging to the branches were either given a pasting with a stick or sliced off with a harvesting pole.

We gathered the harvested pods and dried them in the Sun for about a week. The stickier the fruit, the longer it needs to stay in the Sun to dry the sap.

The men then had a go at the sun-dried pods, giving them a furious thrashing with wooden sticks, separating the brittle hull from fruit.

Women gathered the dehulled fruits and removed the fibre. The boys and I joined the women, and together, we clobbered the fruits with wooden pestles on blocks of stones, sending tamarind seeds flying in all directions. We pressed back the flaps of the deseeded fruits revealing the white inner lining. We then lumped together the fruits to form cakes of processed tamarind.

Women deseeding ripe tamarind pods
Saakamma, Sannamma and Doddamma deseed the dehulled tamarind

So goes the story of ambrosial tamarind that endures fierce shaking and flogging to reach your kitchens in the form it does, and work its magic on lip-smacking curries, sauces and chutneys.

As we prepare for this year’s harvest at Navilu Kaadu, I leave you with the recipe for ‘Kuttunde’, a delightful tamarind treat from my childhood:

Take a fistful of tamarind, throw-in a teaspoon of roasted cumin powder and some red chili powder, salt and jaggery to suit your palate. Give it all a sound pounding, roll into bite-sized balls, stick them to spoon ends and suck away.