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Delicious in the Diaspora: The African Origin of Tamarind...


A tamarind pod as it appears picked from the tree


Tamarind or Tamarindus Indica (which translates roughly to "date of India") is the scientific name of the ukwaju - a misrepresentation of history and historical context. As a matter of academics, it is simply false to describe the ukwaju as a product of India when it is in fact indigenous of Africa. it is my sincere wish to expand the minds of my readers in a way that will allow for a grander imagining and perception of the African diaspora. Moreover, in talking about ukwaju as an example of ethnobotanical heritage of Africa, I also hope that my readers begin to understand how entrenched the obfuscation of African exceptionalism truly has become in our daily lives.



Tamarind, which translates to “date of India”, is not indigenous to India, rather, it is African - Uganda to be more precise. As it is popularly understood, it got its name after it was observed by then Persian traders and merchants (modern day Iranians perhaps) who remarked on the fruits similarity to the locally very well known date. Thusly, they called it the date of India as it was handed to them by traders and merchants from India who themselves were introduced to it by way of ancient east African merchants. What those African merchants carried with them across what was known as the monsoon trade routes, was a magnificent bevy of goods, but the tamarind, or as it is also known in Africa, ukwaju, was a "village tree".


Make no mistake, the ukwaju tree - its fruit, leaves, flowers, branches, roots - are all usable products. Much like the Boabab tree (also indigenous to Africa), you can build a village around the ukwaju tree and that is precisely what many African people did over thousands of years. The wood of the ukwaju tree is a beautiful hardwood, extraordinarily pest resistant and ideal for furniture and home building. The flowers and leaves make splendid tea, have dozens of medicinal applications and make particularly beautiful traditional decoration. The fruit itself can be carried over long distances under extreme heat for up to a year after being pick and still germinate within a week of being sown. When added to stagnant water, the sweet flavor and natural antibacterial properties of the pulp makes the water more palatable and safe to drink. This alone would make the ukwaju a jewel to nomadic tribes and groups such as the Hausa, found predominantly in the southern Niger/ Northern Nigeria regions. It was perhaps, nomadic tribes such as the Hausa, who historically traversed the continent for generations, who helped bring the ukwaju - native to the tropical east regions of Africa - to the tropical central and western regions of the mother continent.


Tamarind Paste, Credit NY Times


So hopefully, as you read and experience this blog and pick up your copy of the upcoming cook book ("Delicious in the Diaspora: the Ethnobotanical, Culinary and Cultural Heritage of the African Diaspora") you will understand that ukwaju is not Swahili for tamarind but rather that tamarind is the Arabic word for ukwaju. These are the origins and we are the originators!

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