July 6, 2021
Until the early 2000s, the candy basket passed around to welcome passengers aboard Jet Airways flights was unremarkable. Maybe the pastel green of a mint would catch your eye, or you would opt for a cloying toffee. But then, a clear wrapper, twisted at both ends, would appear among the cluster of treats. Rolled into two simple spheres, these dark brown orbs were neither milk chocolate nor caramel. Instead, they were imli candies — the pulp of tamarind mixed with jaggery, cumin, chili, and salt, all pressed into balls. They had a distinct chew and, unlike the mouth-puckering acid of lime, their sourness was deep and earthy. Sugar and spice join the party and before you know it, it’s over. That’s the thing about imli candies — you’re always left wanting more.
That’s why imli candies were always the first to run out on flights. Passengers plucked them as soon as they could. “People would easily overlook all the other candies that were in the basket,” Shilpa Bhosekar, an ex-crew member for Jet Airways, recalled. Bhosekar hasn’t worked for the airline since the mid-2000s, but the mere mention of imli candy brought back a wave of memories. Passengers would frequently ask for a few extra as they were deplaning, and the crew would stash some away at the start of the flight to settle an unruly child or pacify a disgruntled passenger. Crew members would also try to grab a handful for friends and relatives back home. And on flights filled with kids returning home from boarding school, an extra supply of candy would be doled out before landing. “It would just bring an instant smile to anybody’s face, be it from a toddler to the oldest of passengers,” she recalled.
The base ingredient for imli candies, tamarind, first arrived in India from tropical Africa in prehistoric times; its roots quickly took hold across the country. Food historian K.T. Achaya wrote that it was referred to as ‘al-tamar-al-Hindi,’ the predecessor for its English name, by an Arab writer in AD 1335. “It came very, very early. So early that it’s almost naturalized in India,” said Saumya Gupta, an associate professor of history at Janki Devi Memorial College, Delhi University. The dark brown pulp used in cooking is encased in a hard bean-like pod that hangs off trees before it’s plucked. Once the seeds are removed from within the pulp, the latter is soaked in hot water. It quickly found culinary favor across the country, in sweet and tangy chutneys drizzled onto plates of chaat, to the unmistakable tartness that cuts through south Indian sambar or Parsi dhansak, to sour Bengali ambals commonly eaten at the end of a meal.
But not all savory flavors that have squarely settled themselves in subcontinental fare have found their way into candy. Though it’s unclear when tamarind first started showing up in candy form, since its arrival, it has bloomed through cottage-industry-sized players. And from the double-knotted sweet-and-sour candies, to the pink Hajmola digestives, Indians just haven’t been able to get enough of them.