What Is Tamarind? And How Do You Use It?

The sweet-sour ingredient is in many dishes you’re probably familiar with, from chutneys to Worcestershire sauce.

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June 18, 2024
Sweet and sour spicy tamarind sauce with ingredients close-up on a wooden table. horizontal top view from above

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Sweet and sour spicy tamarind sauce with ingredients close-up on a wooden table. horizontal top view from above

Photo by: ALLEKO/Getty Images

ALLEKO/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Tamarind is a sweet-sour ingredient that spans the cuisines of many different cultures. Read on to learn more about what it is, where it comes from, all the different ways it's sold and how to cook with it.

What Is Tamarind?

Tamarind is the fruit pod of a tree native to northern Africa and Asia and widely cultivated India; its sweet-sour pulp is used to add punchy flavor in cooking. Technically, tamarind pods are classified as legumes, meaning they're distant relatives of peanuts. Each pod is filled with seeds and sticky, dark brown, sweet-sour pulp. The pulp is typically turned into tamarind paste, tamarind juice and tamarind concentrate. Tamarind is a popular flavoring in Middle Eastern and East Indian food much like lemon juice is used in Western cooking. As well, tamarind is common in Mexican and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Group of tamarind fruit pods with its leafs on wood table, one open. Front view. No people. Horizontal composition photography.

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Group of tamarind fruit pods with its leafs on wood table, one open. Front view. No people. Horizontal composition photography.

Photo by: ALEAIMAGE/Getty Images

ALEAIMAGE/Getty Images

What Does Tamarind Taste Like?

Under-ripe tamarind is mouth-puckeringly sour and needs to be cooked or pickled to eat. It’s typically cut from the seeds and used as an ingredient in Indian pickles, the salty-oily condiment served with every meal in India.

Ripe tamarind flesh tastes a bit like a mixture of lemons, apricots and dates. It’s certainly sweeter than the under-ripe version, but has a touch of sour flavor thanks to tartaric acid, a naturally occurring acid in grapes, apples, peaches, pineapples, citrus and a variety of other fruits.

How Is Tamarind Used?

In general, tamarind is used in boldly flavored dishes. The most common use for tamarind in the U.S. is in the noodle dish Pad Thai. It's also an important ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. Many fusion recipes lean on tamarind as a marinade for meats and fishes because the tartaric acid in the ingredient is a powerful tenderizer. Indian cuisine uses tamarind in chutneys, curries and pickles. Tamarind is also turned into different types of sweet syrups that flavors sodas, cocktails and iced teas.

Indian traditional food, Set of three chutney for Chaat and Sev Puri - sweet date-tamarind, cilantro-mint green and red chilli garlic, On dark stone background, copy space

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Indian traditional food, Set of three chutney for Chaat and Sev Puri - sweet date-tamarind, cilantro-mint green and red chilli garlic, On dark stone background, copy space

Photo by: Rimma_Bondarenko/Getty Images

Rimma_Bondarenko/Getty Images

How to Buy Tamarind

In addition to buying the pods themselves at specialty markets, tamarind can be purchased as powder, paste, juice and liquid concentrate.

What to Know about Fresh Tamarind Pods

Available in the spring and summer in specialty produce markets, especially Asian, Indian and Caribbean markets, tamarind pods should look full and unbroken. They whole pods will keep in a plastic bag at cool room temperature for up to two months. To crack open the pods, crack open the shell by bending it in your hands, peel off the shell and pull off the fibrous strings.

What to Know about Tamarind Paste

Tamarind paste is thick and sticky, resembling the consistency of molasses. It’s far more concentrated in flavor than tamarind flesh. You can use it straight from the container without any further cooking.

What Is a Substitute for Tamarind Paste?

The sweet-sour flavor of tamarind can be replaced with a combination of lime juice or apple cider vinegar and brown sugar or molasses.

Equal parts pomegranate molasses and lime juice or Worcestershire sauce can also be used.

How to Make Fresh Tamarind Pulp

After you've opened the pods and removed the skin and fibers, place the sticky flesh-covered seeds in a bowl of boiling water. Let them sit for a couple hours, then push the seeds and soft pulp through a strainer. The pulp will separate from the seeds; cover and refrigerate it for up to a month, or freeze it for up to a year.

Recipes with Tamarind 

Description: Food Network Kitchen's Samosas with Tamarind-Date Chutney.

Description: Food Network Kitchen's Samosas with Tamarind-Date Chutney.

Photo by: Matt

Matt

These curried potato-filled samosas are the perfect pairing for homemade sweet-tart tamarind chutney. It’s important to use a wet block of the seedless tamarind pulp and not tamarind paste for this recipe.

Mixed with sugar, tamarind creates a satisfying sweet and sour glaze that's just tart enough to balance out salmon, much like lemon juice would.

Classic 100, pad thai

Classic 100, pad thai

Photo by: Caitlin Ochs

Caitlin Ochs

If you’ve made Pad Thai before, you might have some tamarind paste hanging out in the back of a cabinet or the fridge. Bring it out and try this one: it really is the very best version.

Description: Food Network Kitchen's Mangonadas. Keywords: Mangoes, Sugar, Limes, Chamoy, Tajin, Candy Straws

Description: Food Network Kitchen's Mangonadas. Keywords: Mangoes, Sugar, Limes, Chamoy, Tajin, Candy Straws

Photo by: Matt

Matt

What, you may wonder, is a Mangonada? It's a sweet and spicy Mexican drink made with fresh mangos, chamoy and tajin. Each glass is garnished with a tamarind candy straw, which you can buy at a Mexican market near you.

Food Network Kitchen’s Shortcut Chicken Massaman Curry.

Food Network Kitchen’s Shortcut Chicken Massaman Curry.

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©Copyright 2015

Matt Armendariz, Copyright 2015

Massaman curry is a Thai curry like no other: most of the spices and ingredients made their way to Thailand via Muslim communities. Tamarind balances the sweetness in the dish.

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