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Breaking down the cultural significance of tamarind

By Arwa al Hashimi

Photos by Mohammed al Shanfari

Historically, its sturdy trunk and branches were used to build traditional Omani houses. But beyond the shade and shelter they provide, the tamarind trees growing in numbers across the Sultanate of Oman were also used for a lot of other purposes — from being a kitchen favourite to curing some sicknesses.

When you look at these lowly trees, they don’t usually stand out compared to the many bushes and trees growing in the Sultanate of Oman. They usually have short stout trunks but make up for it with their bushy wide-spreading branches and leaves which made them attractive to Omanis for generations for the shade they provide.

The plant species in Oman are very diverse. Tamarind is one of the famous trees cultivated by Omanis. It is indigenous to tropical Africa and Asia. It is commonly found along wadis as it needs water to grow. In the Sultanate of Oman, tamarind trees can grow up to 20 metres (65,6ft) high.

The tree adapts to hot weather; thus, it bears fruit in the summer, usually after March. While they are usually recognised as stout, in the Sultanate of Oman, some have adapted so well that those growing in Wadi E’ateer and the mountains of Dhofar can grow up to 800 metres.

Scientifically, its name is ‘Tamarindus indica’ but didn’t quite catch on in the Sultanate of Oman where the locals refer to it in different names depending on location. Some call it humar, others subar and in the north amongst the Dhofari, it is called “ar’aeer.”

When it blossoms, it usually produces yellow flowers. Tamarind leaves are consist of 9 to 12 pairs of leaflets which helps the tree grow in dense groves. Surprisingly, its trunk is very big and its wood is strong that Omanis used it to make the roofs of their houses back in the day. They also used the woody trunks to set up their tents and light fire. What’s more amazing is that Omanis also used wood to make a tool called “alzanah” which is consists of two equal-sized logs that are joined by a shorter arched beam. They put it on camels’ backs to protect their riders from falling.

The fruit of the tamarind tree is usually the most prized part. People have been using it for hundreds of years and until now in different recipes and dishes. It tastes sour like a lemon. Omanis had been using it in making pickles and different kinds of sauces. Omanis eat it with grilled meat and chicken that they usually cook in Eids and other special occasions. They also eat it with some famous popular dishes such as “harees” and “madhroba”. Additionally, Tamarind is used in making tamarind juice which is a popular drink in many countries.

Like many other trees that grow all around the country, tamarind has good medical benefits as people used its fruit in traditional medicine such as fracture splinting. They also used it to cure newborn jaundice, locally known as “ busfar”.

Interestingly, Omanis used to gather under tamarind trees during Eids, weddings and other wonderful occasions to celebrate, eat different kinds of super delicious food and drink coffee. They also spend their time under its shade during a season called “altabseel” which is the time of the year when Omanis cook their dates after letting them dry for a long period to make an amazing dish called “faghoor”.

Before the 70s, travellers used to take tamarind trees as assembly points for resting. They take rest after long exhausting trips. They choose the trees according to who live near to a particular tree. In this way they have the chance to know the people around, ask them for anything they need after their trips and those people usually host them and try to provide them with their needs as much as they could. This was also a chance for people to exchange things and create new relationships.

Other than its amazing benefits in curing some illnesses and its delicious taste in food and drink, tamarind is a shelter for many birds. This great tree is a part of many people’s childhood memory as many kids used to gather around it every day after school to eat its fruit. Additionally, many of them might have considered it as a bus stop when they were kids. The tamarind continues to be an important meeting point for many Omanis, particularly to this day and it will definitely continue to be adored for generations not just for its lush crown and shade, its many uses for building homes but also because it is important for making traditional dishes and medicine.

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