Native to tropical Africa but found in tropical regions throughout the world, the tamarind tree is celebrated for its distinctive bean-like brown pods. The 5-inch-long pods grow in clusters and are filled with seeds covered in a fibrous, sweet-tart pulp. Once mature, the pods are dried, which makes the pulp even more sour.
Cooks from all over the world 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. We think you’ll find 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. Also known as imli, tamarind is used as a souring agent in many cuisines, especially those of South and Southeast Asia. There, you’ll find it simmered in curries, stirred into drinks, made into relishes and sauces, and even cooked down into a sweet and spicy dessert paste. 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.
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.
Several forms of tamarind are available. We prefer to use either the whole pods or the compressed pulp whenever we have the luxury of a few minutes’ extra time because we find that these forms are more reliably flavorful, and more complex in flavor, than other forms.
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.
Whole dried pods with their hard, brown skin are commonly packaged in cellophane bags.
Compressed tamarind is sold in one-lb. blocks—pulp, seeds, and all.
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.
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. Tamarind pair particularly well 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.
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 process compressed tamarind, 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.
Store whole pods in a cool, dark place.
Unopened, compressed tamarind can be stored indefinitely in a cool, dark place. After opening, store it in the refrigerator tightly wrapped or capped; it will stay good for at least three months. Simply cut off the amount you want to use with a sharp, heavy knife.
Well wrapped, frozen, unsweetened tamarind pulp keeps indefinitely in the freezer. Break it into 1- or 2-oz. pieces and store them in heavy-gauge zip-top bags for easy retrieval.