It is sweet, intense and tart at the same time. It balances, tenderizes and has the ability to heal. Such descriptions could sum up the complexities of love. But in this case, I’m describing tamarind, the versatile ingredient that brightens and brings contrast to anything it touches. Tamarind has the power to add a tangy touch to the sweetest of desserts and bring sweet and tart delight to spicy, savory dishes that will satisfy anyone. How do I love you, tamarind? let me count the ways
I’ve always been a sweet and sour person. Of course, my mixed Indonesian heritage has made tamarind one of my main staples in the kitchen; I often use the thick, pod-like fruits in soups like Ikan Kuah Asam (Timore Fish Tamarind Soup), to flavor peanut sauce or the hot chilli spice sambal, and in a number of well-known sour and spicy dishes like Asam Pedas with Tamarind and Chili. Tamarind is as common an ingredient as lime or lemon in a number of food cultures, but for many, tamarind serves an even deeper and more meaningful purpose.
Native to Africa, the tamarind tree has been cultivated in tropical parts of the world including Asia, the Caribbean, and Central and South America for thousands of years. Reaching up to 80 feet tall, it can live almost 200 years and yield 385 pounds of fruit per year. The foliage of the tamarind tree provides a fern-like canopy of shade, its pinnate leaves opening in the morning sun and closing at night. A member of the pea family (Fabaceae), the legume tree produces a pendulous fruit wrapped in a brittle, bulbous pod that resembles a long, knobbly, light brown finger 4 to 8 inches long. Encased within is tamarind pulp, a sticky, fibrous mass with a date-like texture, encased in threads and veins that surround up to a dozen seeds, depending on where it’s grown.
No part of the evergreen tamarind tree is wasted; its versatility is part of its magic. Its beauty has been noted in literature for centuries (Edgar Allan Poe wrote about “Summer Dreams Under the Tamarind Tree”), and worshiped by many cultures. The tamarind tree is sacred to the Bambara of Mali, where it symbolizes diversity and renewal. In Myanmar, some believe it is the dwelling place of the rain god, and in Buddhism it represents loyalty and forbearance. Tamarind wood is used for woodwork, its pulp as a metal polish for ornaments in Buddhist temples. In India, tamarind leaves are made into a tea to soothe sore throats and add a fresh, sour flavor to curries and chutneys, while tamarind seeds are ground up to be used as an leavening agent in bread. In the Caribbean, whole tamarind seeds are roasted and enjoyed as a snack.
Although every part of the tree is used, it is the fruit – the tamarind pods – that finds the greatest use in the kitchen, offering a wide and brilliant range of flavors. The unripe fruit begins its early life green and highly acidic, but gradually becomes sweeter and darker as it matures. At its ripest, tamarind becomes almost entirely sweet, with just a hint of acidity. In Mexico and the Caribbean, it is customary for the ripest fruit to be plucked from the tree and broken open, the sweet, tempting pulp being eaten by children and adults alike. When the pulp of sweet tamarind is combined with brown sugar and rolled, it becomes a Caribbean delicacy known as tamarind balls, sometimes flavored with a little ground hot paprika or rum. In between is a light red-brown ripe tamarind that has an intense and pleasantly tart flavor with a refreshing tart note reminiscent of caramel and dried stone fruit. It’s the most common form of tamarind and the one I rely on for cooking. Ripe tamarind is a key ingredient in much of South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine, enhancing savory dishes like soups, curries, rice dishes, stews and stir-fries — it’s one of the defining characteristics of the Pad Thai stir-fried noodle dish. It is the ripe tamarind that gives Worcestershire sauce its distinctive flavor. In West Africa, tamarind pods are cooked with rice and fish in Senegal’s national dish, Thiéboudienne—the list goes on.
One of tamarind’s gifts is that it gets home cooks into the skill of seasoning. On its own, it tastes predominantly sour and usually provides all the acidity a dish needs, but it needs to be delicately balanced against sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, spiciness, and umami. Tamarind plays a crucial role in rounding out a dish without overpowering other flavors, and unlike other acidulants like lime or lemon, it can be cooked for long periods of time without changing or degrading the flavor. Used as a marinade for my Smoky Lacquered Tamarind Chicken (recipe pg 90), tamarind’s high acidity adds flavor and tenderness.
The characteristic spiciness of ripe tamarind also unfolds in sweets, offsetting the richness of caramel in my Tamarind Millionaire shortbread and adding complexity and fruity acidity to cakes and contrast to sweets. Combined with sugar and water, it becomes the refreshing and popular Agua de Tamarindo of Mexico, and with the addition of flavors like vanilla or ginger, it transforms into the thirst-quenching tamarind juice from the Caribbean and African countries from Cairo to the Swahili coast. Combined with lemongrass and lime leaves, I love it as a base for a tamarind twist on an Arnold Palmer or a daiquiri (read more below).
Tamarind lends its enchantingly hot and spicy tones to cuisines around the world; It’s a magical ingredient that has the power to heal, quench, and warp our mouths (in the best possible way). And like the best love stories, it’s rich in nuance and full of possibility.
Tamarind fruit can be purchased as cellophane-wrapped pulp in blocks; in jars or containers, sold as tamarind paste, puree or concentrate; or as fresh or dried tamarind pods. For the best tamarind flavor in the following recipes, we call for making tamarind water from tamarind pulp or pods.
Whole tamarind pods are categorized based on the stage of harvest. Sour tamarind or green unripe tamarind is the most tart and acidic. Ripe tamarind is brown, with a pleasantly strong sour taste. The sweet tamarind can be eaten straight from the pod. Buy fresh pods at some major supermarkets, Asian and Indian grocery stores, and online.
Dried tamarind pulp is sold in cellophane-wrapped blocks containing the membrane and seeds of tamarind pods. Once in contact with air, tamarind pulp oxidizes, which is why these blocks are often medium to deep brown or even black in color.
Seedless and moist, pastes are made from the pulp of the tamarind diluted with water, making them easy to incorporate into dishes. Quality pastes should contain only tamarind, water, and (sometimes) a preservative, but no artificial sweeteners or corn syrup. Our testers liked the Somboon brand of tamarind paste, which comes in bricks.
Tamarind concentrates are thick and black with a molasses-like consistency. The intense flavor of tamarind concentrate adds pep to the Tamarind Chicken marinade and enlivens the caramel in Tamarind Millionaire’s Shortbread. Concentrates can also be diluted to a tamarind water-like flavor by mixing with water, if desired. Look for the Tamicon brand.
There is also frozen unsweetened tamarind which can have a weaker potency so you may need to add more to taste. Thinner and less flavorful than other shapes, simply thaw and use as needed.
Finally, there is tamarind powder, which is made from dehydrated and ground tamarind. This pungent, highly concentrated form of tamarind can be used to flavor confectionery, beverages, and sauces when a recipe calls for it, but it cannot replace the paste, concentrate, pods, or pulp.
How to make tamarind water
To release the acidic power of fresh tamarind, the pods or pulp must first be processed into tamarind water. This flavorful tamarind essence is made by submerging fibrous tamarind flesh in boiling water and then straining it. An equal amount of high-quality tamarind concentrate, such as Tamicon, diluted with water can also be used in these recipes, but it lacks the bright and delicate quality of fresh tamarind water.
How to make tamarind cocktails
Aromatic lemongrass, makrut lime leaves and spicy ginger combine with tart fruity tamarind and rich, sweet coconut sugar to create a strong and delicious tamarind cocktail base that can be used in all kinds of concoctions. Combined with rum and fresh lime juice, it becomes a sparkling tamarind daiquiri; With the addition of tequila and a spritz of club soda, it becomes a refreshing Tamarind Cooler. Or try pairing it with your favorite Arnold Palmer Tamarind Iced Tea. Lara Lee, who invented the Tamarind Cocktail Base, also loves adding a spritz of it to dark and stormy cocktails and mojitos. Do you want to prepare your cocktail mix in advance? Simply freeze the tamarind cocktail base in ice cube trays and they will quickly melt when stirred along with the rest of the ingredients.