What is Tamarind?
The sweet-sour ingredient is in many dishes you’re probably familiar with, from chutneys to Worcestershire sauce.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
Chances are, you’ve had tamarind before: it's 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 (TAM-uh-rihnd) is the fruit pod of a tree native to northern Africa and Asia and widely cultivated India. 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.
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.
What are the Different Ways to Buy Tamarind?
In addition to buying the pods themselves at specialty markets, tamarind can be purchased as powder, paste, juice and liquid concentrate. The recipes you follow will probably specify which form to use.
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.
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.