This tart tropical fruit, also known as Indian date, brings an appealing pucker to marinades, sauces, stir-fries and refreshing drinks. In the West Indies, where tamarind also grows, it is used frequently in fruit drinks. Tamarind makes a great secret barbeque sauce and marinade ingredient.
Tamarind Forms and Preparation
Several styles or 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. If the pod is fresh the bark shell will separate if you bend the pod in half. Older pods can be soaked hit hot water before peeling. If you are able to find fresh tamarind pods, break open the brittle pods and remove the moist flesh from the strings that hold them in place (similar to the process of “stringing” beans). Remove the seeds and use the meat to make tamarind water or juice To get about a cup of usable tamarind (enough for a dish serving four people), start with about 4 1/2 ounces of the dried pods, remove the fruit from the pods (you should have about 3 ounces), 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).
Compressed tamarind is sold in one-pound blocks-pulp — I recommend “wet tamarind”. This is the dark brown flesh of ripe sour tamarind removed from the pods, compressed into compact blocks and sold in Thai and Southeast Asian markets. Labeled as “wet tamarind” or simply “tamarind,” most brands already have the fibrous strings and most of the seeds removed. In buying wet tamarind, I usually squeeze the package to feel its softness; a softer package generally is fresher, more moist, easier to work with and yields better-tasting tamarind juice. 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. Simply cut off the amount you want to use with a sharp, heavy knife. To process, combine about 2 ounces 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-ounce 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. Break it into 1- or 2-ounce 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-ounce 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-ounce 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.
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, stirfries, 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, tamarhindi, meaning “Indian date,” tamarind is typically used in equatorial cuisines, such as Indian, Latin American, 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 in World Cuisine
Tamarind is used worldwide in food, candy, and beverages:
India – the sour, unripe tamarind pods are cooked with meat, fish, or rice as seasoning
Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Cuba, India – candy is made by mixing tamarind pulp with sugar and rolling it into balls or patties
Bahamas – unripe tamarinds are roasted in coals until they burst open; the pulp is eaten hot. “Tamarind ade” is made by combining tamarind paste with water, sugar, and sometimes spices such as cloves
Bahamas Brazil, Puerto Rico – tamarind is mixed with sugar, then strained and bottled to make a syrup
Costa Rica – tamarind jam
Thailand – used in many dishes and the seeds are sold as a coffee replacement
Tamarind’s Flavor Profile
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. 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 its 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.
Tips for Using Tamarind in 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 tablespoons 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.
How to make Tamarind Extract
To make about 1 cup of extract, measure 1⁄4 lb. of tamarind paste (a roughly 2 1⁄2-inch ball) and divide it into 8 pieces. Place the pieces in a small nonreactive bowl and add 1 cup boiling water. Let soak for 20 minutes, periodically mashing the tamarind with your fingers, freeing as much of the pulp as possible from the fiber (and, now and then, seeds). Pour the mashed mixture and its liquid into a strainer placed over an empty bowl. Firmly press down on the tamarind pulp with your fingers until nothing but seeds and fiber are left in the strainer. Discard the remaining contents of the strainer. The tamarind extract may be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Our Top 10 Tamarind Recipes
in no particular order…
3. Pad Thai