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Exploring the Vivid Flavor of Tamarind

Fine Cooking Issue 32
Photos, except where noted: Sloan Howard
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The next time you reach for a lemon to add a pleasantly sour touch to a dish, try turning to tart tam­a­rind instead. You’ll be in good company, joining the ranks of cooks from all over the world who add the pulp of this tropical fruit to a wide range of dishes—sauces, marinades, salads, stir-fries, even sorbets and cool, refreshing summer drinks. I think you’ll find, as I have, that the bit of prep work necessary to transform tamarind’s bean-like pods into a fruity-tart purée is quick and easy to do

Taking its English name from the Arabic, tamar-hindi, meaning “Indian date,” tamarind is typically used in equatorial cuisines, such as Indian, Mexican, and Thai. If you’ve been to an Indian res­tau­rant lately, chances are that a bowl of tamarind chutney hit the table not long after you were seated.

Tamarind’s flavor is potent but elusive

With its distinct sweet-sour flavor, a little tamarind goes a long way. Depending on its context, tamarind can express a big, bold personality. It can also whisper its presence, providing a now-you-taste-it-now-you-don’t background for other flavors in a dish. Somewhat chameleon-like, tamarind changes its personality depending on the dominant flavors of the ingredients with which it shares billing. Supporting ingredients often include a hint of sugar, fresh chiles, aromatics such as garlic, ginger, and shallots, coconut milk, or a blend of some or all of the above.

Find the form that best suits your dish

Tamarind may be a bit hard to find in an ordinary grocery store, depending on where you live. Tamarind is sold in many ­specialty markets, especially in Mexican, Indian, and Southeast Asian markets. ­Adriana’s Caravan offers compressed tamarind and tamarind concentrate.(

Several forms of tamarind are available. I prefer to use ­either the whole pods or the compressed pulp whenever I have the luxury of a few minutes’ extra time because I find that these forms are more reliably flavorful, and more complex in flavor, than other forms.

Whole dried pods with their hard, brown skin are commonly packaged in cellophane bags. Store the pods in a cool, dark place. To use the whole pods, peel them with your fingers and then remove the sturdy fibers that enclose the fruit (similar to the process of “stringing” beans).

To get about a cup of usable tamarind (enough for a dish serving four people), start with about 4-1/2 oz. of the dried pods, remove the fruit from the pods (you should have about 3 oz.), and soak it for about 20 minutes in about 1 cup of warm water. Pour the soaking water through a fine sieve into a bowl, and then press the pulp through the sieve into the soaking water (the solids will resemble a soft prune purée). Stir to combine, transfer to a glass jar, seal tightly, and refrigerate (for up to a week).

To coax the usable pulp from the fruit, start by soaking the fruit from whole tamarind pods or the compressed form of tamarind (above) in warm water for about 30 minutes.Scott Phillips
Push the softened tamarind through a sieve to get the thick pulp. Use it straight or mixed with the soaking liquid.Scott Phillips

Compressed tamarind is sold in one-lb. blocks—pulp, seeds, and all. Unopened, it can be stored indefinitely in a cool, dark place. After opening, store it in the refrigerator; it will stay good for ­at least three months. I ­simply cut off the amount I want to use with a sharp, heavy knife.

To process, combine about 2 oz. of the pulp with 5 ounces hot water. Soak and strain the compressed tamarind as you would the whole pods. This yields about 3/4 cup sauce. If you want a very intense concentrate, soak the pulp, discard the soaking ­water and then push the softened pulp through a sieve.

Frozen, unsweetened pulp is usually packed in 14-oz. pouches. It’s especially useful for dishes where you want a thinner, less intense tamarind flavor. Well wrapped, the pulp keeps indefinitely in the freezer. I break it into 1- or 2-oz. pieces and store them in heavy-gauge zip-top bags for easy retrieval.

Frozen tamarind nectar is ready to use and is packaged in 12-oz. plastic bottles or cans. It’s already sweetened and ready to dilute for iced drinks. When combined with sweet citrus juices, the nectar becomes an excellent base for low-fat frozen desserts such as granitas or sorbets. I particularly like to combine tamarind with tangerine or pink grapefruit juice.

Sweetened tamarind syrup is ready to use. It’s best in iced drinks or as a topping for tropical sundaes.

Tamarind concentrate is usually packaged, also ready to use, in 8-oz. plastic jars. It’s a thick, dark unsweetened paste. This works well in salad dressings because it dissolves easily when whisked with a bit of vinegar or lemon juice. It’s so highly concentrated that you can just spoon out a tiny bit to add zing to your sauce. Avoid the concentrates that contain sweeteners and artificial flavors or colors.

Compressed tamarind.
Tamarind concentrate.

Adjusting tamarind’s flavor to your taste

What seems too tart to some might be just right to others, so when you’re cooking with tamarind you may want to sweeten things a bit. Add sugar gradually, tasting as you go to reach just the right balance.

While tamarind does pair beautifully with aromatics such as ginger, garlic, and chiles, I avoid combining herbs and tamarind in any form, other than adding a whiff of fresh cilantro to a tamarind-based soup at the last minute. I think the flavors become muddied, more becomes less.

Tamarind tenderizes as it flavors

Besides adding flavor, tamarind delivers another bonus when it’s used in a marinade. The fruit’s natural acidity helps to tenderize tougher cuts of beef, breaking down the fibers in the meat. Marinated overnight in a tamarind-tinged liquid, beef becomes succulent and tender—a great technique for less expensive cuts. But be careful when marinating fish or chicken: if left in the marinade too long, the tamarind will ­begin to chemically “cook” it. Tam­a­rind’s rich, brown color also deepens the color of a marinade, which can make a wonderful sauce when reduced.

Quick ways to incorporate tamarind into your cooking

• Add a spoonful or so of unsweetened pulp at the last moment to a mix of sautéed vegetables for a refreshingly acidic finish.
• Dissolve 2 Tbs. of sweetened tamarind nectar in 2 cups of cold water, add ice, and a wedge of lemon for a Mexican-style agua fresca.
• Add tamarind concentrate to fresh tangerine or orange juice, sweeten to taste with sugar, and freeze into a refreshing granita.
• Make a salad dressing with tamarind, lemon juice, a bit of brown sugar, and olive oil—good for strongly ­flavored greens with apples and cashews.

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