Look at the long, lumpy, brown pods of the tamarind tree and it might not surprise you to learn they’re legumes (like peanuts—and snap peas), but inside their brittle shells, there’s sticky, fruity, sour pulp clinging to the seeds. The tangy pulp is used in dishes around the world, including in Mexican, Indian, and Thai cuisine, and it’s also one of the semi-secret ingredients in Worcestershire sauce. Joanne Chang and Karen Akunowicz told us a bit about how they use tamarind at Myers + Chang in Boston. Check out their tips, and then keep reading for additional information on different forms of tamarind, and recipes to help you start incorporating it into your own cooking.
Tamarind is naturally sour, and gets more intensely tangy the older it gets—yet it’s still more nuanced than, say, lemon juice. Freshly processed tamarind in particular is rounder and warmer in flavor, but in any case, just a little adds tons of flavor to a dish. It’s also said to be a good facial scrub, and useful for polishing brass! But in the kitchen, try adding it to salad dressing and barbecue sauce, or even homemade soda for an interesting kick. The majority of recipes that include tamarind usually call for tamarind paste or concentrate (interchangeable terms), but there’s a difference between making your own and buying it already made. You can purchase tamarind in three forms:
Fresh Tamarind Pods
While it can be hard to find (your best bet is at a Mexican or Asian market), it’s worth seeking out fresh tamarind. Break open a hard pod and you’ll find moist, sticky pulp with some thin vein-like membranes clinging to it, and hard, flattish seeds inside. To make homemade tamarind paste, you’ll want to pull off the stringy membranes and as much of the skin as possible (if some flakes remain, that’s okay), soak the pulp in hot water for 15-20 minutes (a good starting ratio is 3 ounces of tamarind pulp to 1 cup hot water) until it’s soft, then push it through a mesh sieve to filter out the seeds and any leftover bits of skin. Add some of the warm soaking water back to the strained pulp and stir until incorporated; in most recipes, it’s better to leave it on the thicker side, since you’ll use less that way and won’t add much extra liquid to the dish. But you can always keep adding more water in small amounts to thin it to your desired consistency. If you see “tamarind water” on the ingredients list, then you will want to make it thinner and runnier. Any leftovers can be stored in a closed container in the fridge for a few weeks, or in the freezer, portioned into smaller amounts to make using it in future easier.
If you have trouble finding fresh pods, try seeking out tamarind pulp; it should be available in plastic-wrapped blocks in any Asian market. It may be refrigerated or frozen, but can also be shelved with curry pastes and the like. You can buy it online too, though it will be more expensive that way. Sometimes the seeds and membranes have already been removed, which makes turning it into concentrate even easier. As above, you’ll simply soak it in hot water until softened, then—if it still has seeds—press it through a strainer to remove them, and add back a little water at a time to adjust the texture. If it’s already been seeded, just pour off excess water into a small bowl and stir to get the texture you want, adding back some of the water as needed. Leftover concentrate can be stored as above, and leftover pulp itself should last for quite a long time in the fridge.
Tamarind Paste or Tamarind Concentrate
While making tamarind paste or concentrate from fresh pods or blocks of pulp yields the best, most complex flavor and allows more control over the texture, it’s generally easier to find already-prepared tamarind concentrate than it is to find other forms of the fruit. Check the Indian, Asian, and/or Mexican aisles at any large grocery store for small jars of tamarind concentrate. Some brands are thinner than others, so depending on the viscosity of the kind you buy, you may need to adjust other liquid recipe ingredients to compensate, or even thin out the paste itself with a little hot water, but it doesn’t strictly require any additional processing and is ready to use straight from the jar.
At Myers + Chang, tamarind paste is blended with butter and sweet soy sauce to make a glaze for cod. Experiment in your own kitchen with similar preparations, or try one of these tamarind recipes:
Tamarind is an essential ingredient in pad Thai, even though a lot of people may not know it’s there. It provides the sour flavor to the fish sauce and palm sugar’s salty and sweet. Get our Pad Thai recipe.
Cold tamarind drinks are a popular thirst quencher in several spots around the world, and you can easily make your own flavored soda or tamarind agua fresca at home (or just buy a bottle of Jarritos). But for a more potent option, try this take on a classic Brazilian caipirinha. A teaspoon of tamarind paste lends a sour, fruity kick, while black peppercorns bring a floral heat, and brown sugar is a little rounder and more complex than the usual white. Get our Tamarind Caipirinha recipe.
Simmered pork belly that’s finished in the oven is the perfect mixture of tender and crisp; coated in a sticky, sweet-sour glaze with a hefty dose of tamarind pulp, plus garlic, sweet chile sauce, honey, and ginger, it’s perfect with simple steamed rice and crisp, cooling vegetables. This recipe gives Celsius temperatures for the roasting portion, but if you’re working with Fahrenheit, turn your oven to 425 for the first roast, and then down to about 340 for the rest of the cooking time. Get the recipe.
A full cup of tamarind concentrate mixed with an equal amount of orange juice, plus lime juice, garlic, and ginger, makes for a bold, tangy-sweet take on simple chicken thighs. This is the kind of quick and easy dish you can whip up on a busy weeknight, without sacrificing interesting flavor. Get the recipe.
While tamarind is great as a glaze for meats, it also works wonders for vegetables. Try tamarind glazed vegetable tacos for a change, or skew more East Asian and make a tamarind-accented eggplant stir-fry. Fish sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, and Thai basil round out the flavors, with a little heat from Thai chile and garlic too. Get our Stir-Fried Tamarind Eggplant recipe.
A touch of tamarind is all that’s needed to lend a faintly sour note to this richly spiced coconut-based fish curry, which actually tastes better the next day, so if you’re looking for a make-ahead option , give this a try. Get the recipe.
Massaman curry is relatively mild but rich and heavily seasoned with sweet spices like cinnamon, anise, and clove, with a little tart tamarind to balance them. Beef stands up well to the strong flavors, but chicken is good too, as is tofu and/or a mix of vegetables. Here, there are potatoes and onion, along with roasted peanuts for crunch, and it’s all made in an Instant Pot for a weeknight-friendly dinner that’s delicious enough to serve on special occasions too. Get the recipe.
Piquant tamarind candy is popular in Mexico, India, Thailand, Jamaica, and Trinidad, but maybe not as well known in the U.S. If you love the punch of sweet-sour candy, you should definitely give it a try. The soft, mouth-puckering spheres of chewy, sweetened and seasoned tamarind pulp are usually rolled in crunchy sugar for a nice contrast, and they’re easy to make at home. This version includes red chile powder and roasted cumin for an extra depth of flavor. Get the recipe.
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