Tamarindus indica is probably indigenous to tropical Africa, but has been cultivated for so long on the Indian subcontinent that it is sometimes also reported to be indigenous there, where it is known as imli in Hindi-Urdu. It grows wild in Africa in locales as diverse as Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria and Tanzania. In Arabia, it is found growing wild in Oman, especially Dhofar, where it grows on the sea-facing slopes of mountains. It reached South Asia likely through human transportation and cultivation several thousand years prior to the Common Era. It is widely distributed throughout the tropical belt, from Africa to South Asia, Northern Australia, and throughout Oceania, Southeast Asia, Taiwan and China.
The fruit pulp is edible. The hard green pulp of a young fruit is considered by many to be too sour, but is often used as a component of savory dishes, as a pickling agent or as a means of making certain poisonous yams in Ghana safe for human consumption.
The ripened fruit is considered the more palatable, as it becomes sweeter and less sour (acidic) as it matures. It is used in desserts, as a jam, blended into juices, or sweetened drinks, sorbets, ice creams and other snacks. In Western cuisine, it is found in Worcestershire sauce. In most parts of India, tamarind extract is used to flavor foods ranging from meals to snacks, and tamarind sweet chutney is popular in India as a dressing for many snacks. Tamarind pulp is a key ingredient in flavoring curries and tamarind rice in South Indian cuisine. Across the Middle East, from the Levant to Iran, tamarind is used in savory dishes, notable meat-based stews, and often combined with dried fruits to achieve a sweet-sour tang.
A traditional food plant in Africa, tamarind has potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare. In Madagascar, its fruits and leaves are a well-known favorite of the ring-tailed lemurs, providing as much as 50% of their food resources during the year if available.