One of my favorite things about growing up in Vietnam was the seemingly endless selection of sweets. Offers typically came from adults—from chewy candies to the soft ones that melt in your mouth to the extra sweet to the sour, mouth-puckering confectionaries, I accepted it all. (Luckily, nobody ever asked me to get into a car with them.) What can I say? I had a terrible sweet tooth. And I was especially excited whenever I was given tamarind candy.
These candies became a staple snack of my childhood. But to many, tamarind candy is an acquired taste, for it is sweet, sour, and spicy at the same time. Made from the fruit of the tamarind tree, the fruit of its labor lies within the pods. One of my neighbors growing up had a tamarind tree in his yard, and whenever I walked past his house, I secretly hoped that the tamarind pods would drop so I could crack open their beautiful caramel-colored shells and steal the dark, juicy fruit with bits of stringy fiber inside.
Tamarind candy is made by combining the fruit with sugar and chili powder. It is not the first nor is it the only type of candy with a multi-layered flavor profile, but to me, it’s the first one to make a long-lasting impression.
Eating tamarind candy is a unique experience all on its own. The taste of tamarind on your tongue can only be described as a marriage of complex flavors; as writer and food historian Chitrita Banerji put it in her book Eating India: Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine, it’s an experience where your “eyes water from the chilies… tongues shivering from the intensity of the tamarind.” In other words, it’s like going on a blind treasure hunt—you know what you’re in for, but you often don’t see it coming.
To truly understand the roots of tamarind candy, look no further than the tamarind tree itself, a tall, shady behemoth that thrives in tropical climates. Native to tropical Africa, the tree was introduced to the western hemisphere in the early 1600s, specifically to Mexico and the Caribbean. Later, it reached the Persians and Arabs, who came up with the word “tamar hindi” (or “Indian date”) to describe its date-like appearance. But when it appeared in these regions remains unclear. One theory purports that the tamarind was introduced to Aleppo, a city in Syria, from India via Persia in the 7th or 8th century and since then has been used to season food.
Regardless of its exact migration pattern, the tamarind tree, over time, proved to be useful in many ways. In a tropical environment where refrigeration was not yet available, tamarind fruit was a reliable ingredient that can last for months if stored properly. With an abundance of tamarind pods, what better way to use them than turning them into candy?
Some of the earliest evidence of tamarind’s culinary uses can be traced to the Ni’matnama cookbook, which included “a royal recipe for rice and meat spiked with nuts that have been barbed by a dunk in tamarind syrup,” writes Meher Mirza in Saveur. Additionally, the tamarind tree was valued by Mughal emperors (who ruled parts of northern and central India from the 16th to 19th century) for the dense shade it provided, making it a perfect spot for a tired traveler to relax.
Of course, tamarind trees can be used for more than just an afternoon siesta. Pulp harvested from tamarind pods has multiple uses, such as in cream of tartar or Worcestershire sauce, which comes from the tartaric acid from the sour, unripe pods. Fully ripe pods are brittle, more chocolate colored, and easily breakable in your hand. They also tend to be on the sweeter side, perfect for sodas and sweet and sour candies—both of which Mexico is well known for. The confections are known as “tamarindo” or simply “Mexican candy.”
In Southeast Asia, particularly India, the fruit is often used in pickling, sauces, chutneys, and curries. In Malay, it’s called “asam,” which roughly translates to “sour.” The Vietnamese people call it “keo me” or “sour candy.” Aside from its culinary uses, it can also be used for medicinal purposes, such as treating diarrhea, constipation, fever, and malaria. Its anti-inflammatory properties may also be useful in treating certain illnesses; however, that has yet to be proven by science. Lastly, it’s not uncommon to see tamarind used as a seasoning, a spice, or a paste, or sold as dried fruit.
At an Asian supermarket, tamarind candy is typically in the middle of the candy and snack aisle, in small, plastic shells no bigger than a soup bowl. One of the most well-known brands of tamarind candy is Amira, which happens to be the brand I ate the most as a kid. If you’re feeling ambitious, a quick Google search will yield hundreds of recipes on how to make tamarind candy yourself.
But if you’re not up for experimenting in the kitchen and don’t live near an Asian supermarket, there are other ways to get this sweet, tangy, spicy treat. Online, there’s no shortage of specialty stores that sell tamarind candy, such as MexGrocer, Just Asian Food, Lolli & Pops (especially this delightful Chia-pet-like confectionary), Candy Warehouse, and Zocalo Foods.
It’s worth noting that tamarind candy, like other candies you’d find at an ethnic grocery store, contain the Prop 65 warning label from the state of California due to the potential for lead exposure. While this may be a cause for concern, it’s also worth noting that lead exposure can occur in a variety of ways, not just through candy. So it’s up to you to decide whether these candies are right for you. For me, it will always be associated with happy memories from my childhood, and thus, the answer is usually “yes.”