© Denzil Green
Tamarind is a soft, pulpy seed pod used in cooking to give a sweet yet tart flavour (yet without being quite as sour as lemon.) It is used in curries and chutneys, and to make sauce for fowl. In India, Tamarind Fish (pickled in Tamarind) is very popular.
It is used in the tropics and Pacific Rim countries just as we would use lemon juice. Closer to home, we encounter it without knowing it. The take-out Vindaloo you had last week from your local Indian will likely have Tamarind in it, as will that jar of Worcestershire Sauce in your kitchen.
The Tamarind is a tall evergreen tree originally from eastern Africa that has long ago spread throughout the tropics, the Pacific rim and the Caribbean. It may be one of the few important spices originally of actual African origin.
The Tamarind flowers produce seed pods up to 5 inches (12 ½ cm) long, usually brown but in some varieties rose coloured, which contain up to about a dozen seeds per pod nestled inside a sticky brownish pulp. When ripe, the pods are thin and brittle. You open the pods (they open easily), and scrape out the pulp and the seeds for use.
You can get Tamarind in markets in many forms — dried “bricks”, jars or fresh. The bricks are small, pressed flats of the pulp, sometimes with the seeds, sometimes without. You can also get jars of seedless Tamarind concentrate paste, or even Tamarind powder. In some markets, you can buy the fresh unprocessed pods.
Tamari, the fermented Japanese sauce, has no relation to Tamarind.
Tamarind Pulp Paste
© Denzil Green
Soak the pulp in warm water for anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Use about ¼ cup (2 oz / 60 ml) of warm water per 1 to 1 ½ tablespoon of Tamarind pulp. Rub the pulp with your fingers until dissolved. When the pulp has all dissolved, you are ready to go. Strain, discard the fruit, and use the liquid as required by your recipe.
Some recipes will want just the flavour from the pulp and seeds; others will want not only that but also the ground seeds. You never, though, use the seeds whole; they are pretty hard. They are either soaked for their flavour and discarded, or ground (or used by kids in India for spitting contests.)
Dissolve instant Tamarind in water before use.
Use the concentrate paste as is straight from the jar.
If you can’t find Tamarind, you can substitute lemon or lime juice mixed with a touch of brown sugar (some purists scoff at this.)
For 60 ml / 4 tablespoons tamarind paste, you can substitute 125 ml (½ cup) tamarind pulp soaked in 125 ml (½ cup) hot water until softened, then pressed through a sieve.
Tamarind has a slight laxative effect. There was a vague concern that polysaccharides in Tamarind seeds might be carcinogenic, but that was disproved, it appears, by a 1996 Japanese study (PubMed Index Number 8655095. Retrieved February 2004.)
1 pound (450g) = 35 – 40 pods
If you end up with more Tamarind water than you need, and plan to be cooking with it again, freeze the strained liquid in ice cube trays, then when frozen pop out the Tamarind water cubes into freezer baggies.
Store a block of Tamarind paste tightly wrapped in the refrigerator.
Literature & Lore
The name Tamarind hails from the Arabic, “tamr hindi”, meaning “date of India”, even though the tree is not part of the date family nor does it hail from India. Indians get a little bewildered by one of the English synonyms, “Indian Dates”, as they have both Tamarinds and dates in India, and never for a moment even think of Tamarind pods as dates.