Tropical Fruits Month:
Global Ingredient Profile
by Kate Heyhoe
Western cooks tend to use lemon juice when they want an acidic flavor, but a number of other ingredients can also punch up a dish with tartness. Ground sumac, a dark red berry, adds a special tang and is used in the Middle East. Various fruits, some citrus and some not, also deliver a tart flavor. Throughout the Pacific Rim and the tropics, a very unusual source of tartness comes from the tamarind tree.
The tamarind is an evergreen tree native to Africa, but it spread to India in prehistoric times and then to Southeast Asia. It is also found in India, Mexico and South America. Tamarind is an ingredient in Worcestershire Sauce and in many chutneys.
The brown tamarind pods, resembling fat broad bean pods, contain small seeds (about a dozen per pod) and a very tart pulp, which is used as an acid or souring agent in cooking, in much the same way we use lemons. The pods start out green then become brown and brittle when ripe. The pods are opened to dry in the sun, and the sticky dark maroon-brown pulp and shiny seeds are scraped out, sometimes mixed with salt, and pressed into pliant bricks. The seeds must be strained out before the pulp can be used.
Tamarind is essential to Malaysian and Indonesian cooking, giving foods a sweet-tart flavor, and as mentioned, it appears throughout various other cuisines. You can use tamarind in grilling glazes, barbecue sauces, and curries.
In some countries, the pulp is turned into syrup. By adding sugar and water, or carbonated water, it makes refreshing drinks. In Thailand the pulp is dusted with sugar and eaten as a candy. Vietnamese New Year's Candy, mut me, is a chewy bit of preserved tamarind pulp rolled in sugar and salt.
Cooking with Tamarind
- Look for three main types of tamarind paste in Asian, Indian or Latin markets: bricks with seeds and seedless pulp. Flat cellophane wrapped bricks contain the pulp and seeds; break off an inch or so and submerge it in warm water for about 15 minutes. Then press the softened pulp and liquid through a strainer over a bowl to separate the usable diluted pulp from the seeds and fibers. Indian markets carry tamarind concentrate, which contains pure pulp without seeds, and can be used straight from the jar.
- You can also find tamarind powder and so-called instant tamarind, which takes longer to dissolve than tamarind bricks. Other tamarind products include nam phrik pao, a chile-tamarind paste used in Thai and Filipino sour soups, sauces, dressings, and stir-fries.
- When dissolving tamarind pulp, go ahead and make more than you need immediately. After straining the pulp, freeze the liquid in ice cube trays for ready use later.
- If you can't find tamarind, you can substitute lemon or lime juice mixed with a touch of brown sugar.
Tamarind image reprinted by permission from Charmaine Solomon's Encyclopedia of Asian Food.
Recipe: Preparing Tamarind Pulp
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp without seeds
OR 1-1/2 tablespoons tamarind pulp (with seeds)
Soak the pulp in the water until soft, from 5 to 15 minutes. With your fingers, rub the pulp until dissolved and the seeds are free of pulp. Strain and discard the seeds and fibers; use the prepared tamarind as directed in recipes.
More Tamarind Recipes:
Kate's Global Kitchen for June, 2000:
Copyright © 2000, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created June 2000