The Bugis people of South Sulawesi in Indonesia, following the trade winds in their ocean-growing Perahus, have been harvesting trepang with the help of the Aborigines from the coast of Arnhem Land for hundreds of years.

The trepang, a sea slug highly valued by the Chinese, was boiled up in seasonal camps scattered along the northern coastline. It was at these camp sites that tamarind trees (Tamarindus indica) first appeared in Australia.

Most Asians use the dark brown fleshy substance that surrounds the seed of this majestic tree, the Bugis being no exception. They carried it with them as an additive to dried fish on their long voyages to the Top End. Today these trees stand as evidence of the once flourishing trade between our first Australians and our Asian neighbours.

Tamarind trees are common along the sub-tropical and tropical coasts of Australia. At the mouth of the Boyne River, near Gladstone in Queensland, I saw two very old trees, their feathery light green foliage enhanced by a profusion of small red and white, sweetly smelling flowers, covered in buzzing bees. The ground was strewn with fallen pods, the trees still bearing a bumper crop.

Tamarind pods are normally 100 to 150 mm long and the sticky, stringy dark brown flesh that surrounds the four to six seeds has a delicious tangy taste. The seeds, if fried and soaked in water overnight, have a pleasant nutty flavour and the leaves, used like bay leaves in cooking any food, bring out the flavour, giving it a slightly sour taste.

In Indonesia it is called Pohon Asam, or 'sour tree'.

For toffee, the pods need to be picked when brown and crisp, keeping a watchful eye for signs of fruit fly infestation. The outer shell can usually be pulled off completely, leaving a neat mould of the pod in the form of flesh and seeds.

The fruit, with seed intact, is then soaked in water, sufficient to cover it, overnight. Then it is pushed through a sieve to extract the string and cellulose, resulting in a thick brown viscous fluid.

This sticky substance, when boiled slowly for an hour with raw sugar and some gelatin for thickening, forms a toffee with a refreshing tangy flavour.

The traditional way to handle this sticky mess is to pour it into a sheaf cut from the trunk of a banana tree, to which it does not stick. If placed in the refrigerator for a few hours, it can be cut, rolled in icing sugar and wrapped in greaseproof paper.

Tamarind trees grow readily from seed if the weather is warm and sunny, but the seed must be checked for fruit fly. I've just finished a tamarind toffee - very nice!

Richard Tumman

DATE: May 1983

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