Tamarind, whose name comes from the Arabic word meaning “date from India,” is an ancient sweet and sour fruit that actually originated in Africa but traveled very early to India and throughout the Middle East, then was brought by the Arabs and Jews to Spain and by the Spanish to Latin America. Within Jewish communities, you know a dish has Syrian roots if you find tamarind listed in the ingredients.
Often used the way we use tomatoes today, to add acidity, depth, and sweetness to a sauce, tamarind has been a lovely flavor addition for centuries in Syrian, Persian, Iraqi, Georgian, and Indian Jewish dishes, as well as Sephardic dishes that eventually, in the 1500s, traveled with the Spanish and Portuguese to Mexico, the Caribbean, and other parts of Latin America, where it remains very popular today.
The only catch is that tamarind is somewhat difficult to use—it has to be peeled, soaked, seeded, and then squeezed through cheesecloth and mixed with sour salt, lemon juice, and/or sugar before being cooked down to a concentrate or paste. (Poopa Dweck’s beautiful book The Aromas of Aleppo describes the process.) As soon as tomatoes came from the New World to the Old, the more easily used red tomatoes replaced tamarind in many dishes. The unique flavor and tartness of tamarind, however, is becoming popular again, with easily dissolvable tamarind paste concentrates and bulk tamarind dissolved in a little water now available from India, other parts of Asia, Latin America, and even Texas.