Love and Tamarind, Kurdish Style.

On a recent archaeology trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, I fell in love… with tamarind!

So why did I never encounter tamarind during my 15 years working in Syria?

The pulp of the tamarind fruit manages to have an earthy soul, with a delicate, floral aura, a body of puckery sourness, and a citrusy finish. Its complex notes flavor a whole spectrum of foods in northern Iraq, including cold drinks, curries, marinades, and stews.  During the hotter months, tamarind juice is a refreshing drink, and especially favored to end the daily fast during the month of Ramadan. It can flavor Kurdish shifta (similar to Arab kofta), and it is typical – if not de rigeur – in the ever-present masgouf (Arabic): butterflied carp, marinated with a spice mixture of tamarind, turmeric, salt, garlic, and sometimes coriander, which is slow-roasted over an open flame. It is the flavor of that fish that started my love affair with tamarind.

Tamarind is one of several “souring” foods used in Kurdish cooking, specifically, but also in the Middle East, generally. Sumac and dried lime are also frequently used to sour salads, stews, meats, and fish, and the ever-present pomegranate can also add sourness. While each is used across the Middle East, anecdotally it seems that the preferred use of sumac or tamarind – each offering a similar spectrum of citrusy/sour flavors – falls along regional divides.

So where sumac seems more common further West (e.g. in Lebanon and Syria), tamarind is more popular further East (e.g. in Iran and South Asia). Pomegranate – similar, as well – is popular all over.  Iraq’s cuisine has influence from both East and West. Yet, in my experience, the divide is present within Iraq, even within the Kurdistan region.  Cuisine centered near Erbil is more likely to use sumac, while that closer to Sulaymaniyah (and particularly east of that city nearer Iran’s border) is more apt to favor tamarind.

From a geographical perspective, this divide makes sense; while tamarind is native to tropical Africa, it was likely introduced to the Middle East from India – as opposed to Africa – as the name “tamarind”, itself, suggests. Arabic tamar hindi (Persian tamher hendi) means “date of India”.  The name is not a true indication of its origin, but rather the path by which it was introduced into foodways in the Middle East, which was apparently via India.

Yet that still doesn’t fully explain the seeming divide between the preference for tamarind or sumac as a primary souring agent and seasoning. There are slight differences in flavor, as one Kurdish woman describes the sumac’s earthy/citrusiness “muddy”, while the tamarind’s is “clean”.  Simple preference for one taste over another is certainly a possibility determining its use. But, food is also heavily steeped in tradition – of culture and family. Often times people use the food they do “because that is what we eat”, because it is tradition.

But, there is tradition, and then there is tradition. I deal in the latter.

As an archaeologist, I am immersed in local life where I live and work. We often stay in small villages, living among families with deep roots in the area, drinking their tea, eating their food, and generally sharing their lives.  As well, there is often correspondence between present food culture and the remnants of ancient foodways that we dig up out of the ground. I study the animal bones that come from ancient settlements, and it is quite often the case that the same types of animals we dig up, we see in the villages, and sometimes have in our meals.

This site was no different. I was analyzing bones from roughly 3000-5000 years ago, dating from the Iron Age, to Sassanian and Early Islamic eras. From those time periods, I identified sheep and goat, taurine cattle, and pigs. Other than pig, those animals are still found in the villages today, and provide dairy, meat, wool, hair, and hides. It is fairly clear how they got to the Bestansur area in which I was working: these are domestic forms of wild animals that are native to the Kurdistan region.

The earliest inhabitants at the settlement lived there more than 10,000 years ago – in the Neolithic – at a time when people really only had access to native taxa. In this region, and elsewhere across a wide swath of the ancient Middle East, people were managing their local, wild flora and fauna in ways that would transform the world through the domestication of plants and animals.  Basically, they were doing things that aided in the health and survival of those native, desired resources. For instance, to help a herd of wild goats, people might chase off or kill deer that feasted on the same grasses and leaves. Or, people might chase away lions that would prey on the goats, themselves. Or, it may mean “nurturing” plant resources by reducing shade, pruning their growth, or adding nutrients to the soil, or preventing the deer and goats from eating them. So, it was definitely not a surprise to find “traditional” (read “native”) animals.  

Nesokia indica meal

But, I also found animals that are *not* derived from native taxa, including zebu cattle (Bos indicus), chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus), donkey (Equus asinus), and horse (Equus caballus).  Among these, one of my favorite finds of the season was a horse bone that had been gnawed by a rodent, leaving very characteristic, parallel grooves as evidence. I also had numerous examples of the short-tailed bandicoot rat (Nesokia indica), whose incisors fit perfectly into the grooves on the gnawed bone!  Other than the rat, none of these is native to this part of Kurdistan. But, aside from the zebu cattle, these animals are all still found in the surrounding villages.  Basically, they have become traditional parts of the animal economy, and the chicken is entrenched in its foodways.

But why not the zebu cattle? Like tamarind, it comes to the Kurdistan region by way of India and South Asia. Unlike tamarind, however, it originated in South Asia and later found its way to tropical Africa – where its genes still remain in the local cattle breeds. Perhaps zebu couldn’t compete with the traditional taurine cattle, or perhaps too few ever came to this part of Iraq.

Plant and animal resources – along with exchange of information and technology – followed the movement of people, which could be voluntary or coerced, temporary or permanent, and in frequency that could be unique, episodic, or regular; those are details that may make a difference in whether certain resources are culturally acquired.

So, while items from the area of modern Iran and Afghanistan made their way to modern Iraq and further West already in the 5th and 4th millennium as booty from war, or periodic barter or gifting, it isn’t until commercial exchange (or colonial expansion) makes foreign commodities familiar and reliable that they start to be incorporated more permanently into a cuisine or foodway.  In the Middle East, we know such trade was occurring at least by the early 2nd millennium BC. The Old Assyrian Empire, based in Iraq, regulated an international trade-system that regularly brought together goods from Oman to Armenia, and Egypt to India; these were traded through the empire. Was tamarind part of that exchange? We do not know. But, foods have long been part of commercial exchange, and spices and seasonings have always been particularly valuable.  For example, control of the spice trade helped finance the Abbasid Caliphate, the Republic of Venice, and the Ottoman Empire, and spurred the establishment of new shipping lanes and several colonial expansions.

One of those colonial expansions involved Spaniards, who made their way to the New World. Their arrival in Mexico in the 16th century brought with them… the tamarind. Tamarind is now an integral component of Mexican cuisine. Tamarind also came to Hawaii by way of Spain, as the Spaniard Don Marin planted the first one there in 1797. That initial planting was followed by more, but tamarind is not used nearly as extensively in Hawaiian cuisine as in Mexican.

But, even with dispersal of resources and the cultural innovations necessary to cultivate or process them, their use and ultimate adoption into a cuisine is not simply based on availability – even reliable availability.  Changes in cooking and foodways come neither quickly nor easily, though those foodways do evolve – especially as the world grows smaller and cultural intersections increase. A case in point, on Fridays in Sulaymaniyah, there is a definite South Asian feel to the streets leading the to the bazaar, with samosas warming in pans and dumplings steaming in covered pots. Those dumplings have a delicious, delicate curry-sauce for dipping…flavored with tamarind.

Tamarind, whether in cuisine that is local, traditional, borrowed, modern, or exotic, is now evocative of Sulaymaniyah to my senses.