(Image: Amy Glaze’s Pommes d’Amour)
Tamarind chutney shows up on Indian menus as the dip for samosas, and you may have noticed Mexican tamarind-flavored soda at your local corner store. (Buy it. It’s delicious.) But in non-tropical regions, where we don’t see it growing on trees, it can be a bit hard to imagine what the fruit looks like, or figure out how, exactly, to incorporate its fantastic flavor into our cooking.
So let’s paint a picture. Tamarind trees can grow to 100 feet, with wide-spanning branches feathered with fern-like leaves. The bulging fruit, two to seven inches long, initially has large white seeds encased in an acidic pulp, all enclosed in a delicate green pod. As tamarind ripens, its skin turns brittle, moisture evaporates, and the pulp becomes a sweet, sticky brown or reddish paste. The fruit is harvested either by shaking the tree or letting the pods fall naturally to the ground.
The taste, like a sweet and sour date, is as versatile as the continents it has traversed. Indigenous to tropical regions in North Africa, tamarind was introduced to India in ancient times, where cooks have long used the green pods to season rice, fish, and meat, and the ripe fruit in chutneys and curries. From there, tamarind traveled up to Persia, where it acquired the name now linked to its current etymology, “tamar hindi,” or Indian date. Tamarind trees now grow in most tropical regions, including islands in South Asia and the Pacific and parts of the Americas. Seasons vary depending on location, but in the U.S., tamarind ripens in Florida from spring to early summer and in Hawaii from late summer into the fall.
Equally at home in sweet and savory dishes, as the main event or a quiet supporter, tamarind is a subtle ingredient in Worcester and many barbecue sauces, but you’ll also find it in Thai coconut curries. It can add a kick to salad dressings and is especially effective in marinades because the fruit’s acidity breaks down tough cuts of meat. We like to capitalize on tamarind’s sticky, glossy nature, using it in a glaze for our Tamarind Glazed Steak with Curried Crispy Chickpeas and Ginger Greens, shipping this month.
When it’s time for dessert, consider tamarind syrup: it’s delicious poured over snow cones, as they do in Mexico, or as the base of a tastey ade accented with spices like cloves, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, or pepper and a slice of lime. Tamarind drinks are common in most places that the tree grows, and are not only refreshing but are also considered a digestive. Thai cooking mastermind Andy Ricker makes a seductive adult version, a tamarind whiskey sour, at his Pok Pok locations in New York and Portland. If you’re looking to go the non-alcoholic route, you can also freeze tamarind into a sorbet or granita.
If you don’t live close to a tamarind tree, not to worry. Tamarind is widely available in many different forms. Whole pods and compressed pulp promise the most flavor. Buy them online or at a specialty market, but be aware that they do require some prep work. For whole pods, peel them like you’d string a bean, then soak the pulp in warm water for 20 minutes, using about one cup water to every three ounces pulp. Then, press through a sieve and stir to combine for a ready-to-use paste. Similarly, with the compressed pulp, soak in hot water—about five ounces for every two ounces pulp—then press through a sieve and stir. For a stronger paste, discard the water before you press the fruit through the sieve. For an easier way to enjoy tamarind flavor, concentrates, nectars, and syrups are ready to use and can often be found at natural food supermarkets such as Whole Foods.
Those are the basics. Now that’d we’ve demystified tamarind, go forth and cook.