The Sweetie and Sour Tamarind

Tamarind is the fruit of a tall tropical evergreen tree in the bean family. It is indigenous to eastern Africa, and possibly also to southern Asia, and it has grown wild in India for centuries. Tamarind was used by the Arabs in the Middle Ages, and the Europeans also knew it then. Spanish conquistadors took tamarind to Mexico and the West Indies. Today, India is one of the major producers, but tamarind is also cultivated in Thailand and other Asian countries, as well as in Mexico and the East Indies.

Tamarind pods look like fat, dark brown broad beans. They are about 4 inches long, and the pulp contains ten or so hard seeds. The pods are harvested when ripe, often after they have begun to split open. The outer skins are removed, and the sticky reddish-brown pulp, with the seeds intact, is usually shaped into bricks or blocks; the pulp darkens to a very deep brown. Tamarind is also processed into a flavorful (and easier to use) concentrate, made by cooking down the pulp with water and then straining it to remove the seeds and fibers. More recently, tamarind powder has become available.

With a mild fruity fragrance and a tart, sweet, fruity flavor, tamarind is the main souring agent in Indian cooking and is used for the same purpose in other tropical kitchens (one of its names in Asia is assam, which means “acid”). To use the pulp, pull off a small chunk from a block of tamarind and soak it in a little hot water for 15 to 20 minutes or so, until it softens, then mash the pulp and liquid together and strain. Tamarind concentrate is ready to be used, and the powder can be stirred into any dish to add a hit of tartness, though the flavor will not be as complex.

In India, tamarind adds its distinctive flavor to a range of curries, dals and other lentil dishes, and chutneys. It is popular in Thailand, where it is used in soups, sauces, and curries. Tamarind is particularly good with fish and seafood. It can be used in desserts and sweets, as well as in savory dishes, and it is made into a refreshing drink in countries from Thailand to East Africa to the Caribbean and Mexico. Tamarind is one of the ingredients in Worcestershire sauce. It can also be used in candies.