The fruit of the tamarind tree grows in a curved pod covered with a thin, barky skin. The skin peels away easily to reveal the sticky, reddish-brown, sweet, tangy and delightful pulp. Tamarind is prominent in Indian and Thai cuisine, in fact the Indian section of your grocer is a good place to start looking for this ingredient. Other Asian countries use it as well, as do Mexicans, and you may very well find it in a Caribbean jerk recipe. Worcestershire sauce, a staple of British and American kitchens, contains tamarind as a flavoring ingredient.
Tamarind was nicknamed Indian date by the British, and is known in various Asian countries as asam jawa, siyambala and sampalog.
You can buy tamarind already made into a paste, or as a syrup with added sweetener, or you can prepare the paste yourself. If you really want to start from scratch get the tamarind pods. Remove the outer bark from the pod and you will get what is basically a long row of sticky, pulp covered seeds. Just pull off the long, wiry membranes that run along the length of the pod. You can break the row apart into sections, and each section will have a hard, black seed at the center. The pulp is delicious, like a sour, chewy candy with smoky undertones. Just don’t forget to spit out the seed. Tamarind is very low in calories – about 5 in the whole pod. I find them to be a great appetite suppressant, but be careful because if you eat too many it can have a laxative effect similar to prunes.
If you are making a sauce or soup stock that you will be straining anyway, you can just throw the tamarind right into the pot and let it cook with the rest of the ingredients.
The next step up from buying the pods is to buy a chunk of tamarind pulp. This comes in a hard brick sometimes called imli. Some varieties have a large amount of fiber, seeds and even the outer bark mixed in. If possible look for seedless pulp, with a minimum of solid debris mixed in. Either way, here is the method for making tamarind paste.
- Place your brick in a large bowl, breaking it in half or quarters. Cover with water that is hot but not painfully hot. You will be putting your hands in the water.
- Use your hands to break up the lumps as it softens and massage the pulp until most of it has dissolved away from the solids.
- Strain with a fine sieve into a clean bowl.
- Put the remaining solids back in original bowl, pour a small amount of water over and repeat process, straining again into the bowl with the first batch.
If you want your paste to be thicker, you can boil it down. One 8 ounce brick will yield about 1 1/2 cups of boiled down paste. Since many recipes only use 2 or 3 tablespoons of paste, this will last you for quite a while. You can store this in the fridge for a month or two, maybe longer. If you don’t use it as much, just break a smaller chunk of the brick and prepare a smaller amount of paste. The brick can keep in a cupboard, well wrapped, practically forever.
Tamarind is high in iron and vitamin C, and also contains some B vitamins, magnesium and potassium. It has been used as traditional medicine to treat fevers, sunstroke, sore throats and as a dressing for wounds. It is reported to have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties and to enhance the effects of ibuprofen. A study published in the Malaysian Journal of Nutrition in 2009 showed that tamarind has substantial antioxidant properties.
Tamarind paste is way too tart on its own and is usually mixed with sugar, spices, or other fruits. What can you make with tamarind? It goes great with fish and seafood, and can be used as a glaze or sauce for chicken, turkey or beef. Tamarind is one of the ingredients you need for Pad Thai. You can add it to stir fried vegetables and I have seen it as a flavoring for different cocktails.
For a simple vegetarian recipe using tamarind try Potatoes with Tamarind, a tangy twist on potato salad with Indian spices.
Potatoes with Tamarind
- 2 pounds medium white potatoes (about 6)
- 5 tablespoons strained tamarind paste
- ¼ teaspoon asafetida (found in Indian stores, optional)
- 1 ½ teaspoons molasses
- ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 ¼ teaspoons cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground red pepper (or cayenne)
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro or parsley
- green chilies cut in strips for garnish
- Peel potatoes, cover with water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer until potatoes are just tender all the way through. Drain, and cut into ½ inch cubes.
- Heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a small saucepan or skillet. Add asafetida. Add tamarind paste, molasses, ginger, black pepper, cumin and red pepper. Cook and stir over medium heat until paste is slightly thickened.
- Pour tamarind mixture over potatoes and mix well. Garnish with parsley and green chili strips. Serve warm or at room temperature.