By Chris Rawstern
My first experience with tamarind was in Guatemala. While living there, I grew to love the refreshing beverage made with tamarind. As the tamarind pulp is quite tartly acidic, it works similarly to lemons for making lemonade. Once returning to the US in the 1980s, tamarind was unavailable in most places and my interest fell by the wayside.
Tamarind is originally from Africa, around what is the Sudan, today. It grows abundantly in India and the name tamarind comes from the Indian words Tamar Hindi, meaning Indian Date. The tamarind was introduced into Mexico and the Caribbean sometime around the 16th century. The tamarind tree can grow to a height of around 80 feet in its preferred climate. The tree appears feathery, with tiny leaflets down each side of the stems. These leaflets close up at night. The fruit grows as brown pods. The outer casing of the pods is dry and brittle and easily cracked off. The inner fruit is a dark reddish brown, thick, fibrous and sticky. The fruit encases 1 to 12 glossy brown seeds. It is tart and sour when young, sweetening as the pods ripen.
Tamarind was once again highlighted when interest in world cuisines and fusion cooking picked up in the later 1990s. This time the focus was on the pulp used in recipes, rather than solely as a beverage. An amazing flavor, tamarind is both sweet and sour at the same time. It is a potent flavor, best used somewhat sparingly unless you are quite accustomed. It is a wonderful addition to any sweet and sour dishes. It is an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. In Southeast Asian cooking, it is a flavor often combined with such other ingredients as garlic, dried shrimp, coconut and chilies. Pad Thai is one commonly known Thai dish using tamarind. In India, it is used to make delicious chutney, as well as a Tamarind Rice or South Indian Fish Curry. In the Caribbean islands it is often used in cooking seafood. Small amounts of tamarind paste are used in sauces for dishes containing cassava, chickpeas, potatoes or rice with greens. It can be used to make sweet and sour sauces, mixed into recipes with both sugar and pepper, mixed into barbecue sauces, made into beverages, desserts and candies.
One common use for tamarind is in sauces, which gives control of the amount used. Plain tamarind sauce or paste is available in many places these days, including online. Adding from a teaspoon to many tablespoons of this prepared sauce simplifies making any recipe. It can flavor a marinade for meats. Chicken, beef, pork and lamb are all candidates for a tamarind flavored marinade. The natural acidity can be used in a marinade to tenderize tougher cuts of meat. It can be used in vegetarian dishes, adding wonderful sweet and sour flavors to a vegetable stew. The paste can be cooked into a jam. If making a Caribbean type barbecue sauce with tamarind, some suggested ingredients would be chilies, mango, onion, garlic and a bit of spicy mustard. Sugar may be added to taste. These flavors seem to beg for barbecued chicken.
I plan to try out recipes in the Caribbean or African style. A little tamarind sauce with sweet potatoes and brown sugar would be a great combination. Mixed into a stew with greens and chickpeas and sweet potato is another great application. Find some tamarind, whether in pods, compressed into a cake, or strained into a sauce. Experiment with the flavor. Make it into a refreshing beverage with sugar, to taste. This gives the first indication of the flavor of tamarind. Then look at trying this new flavor out in other recipes. It is so versatile, lending the use to both sweet or savory recipes, and sometimes both together. Put tamarind on your list of new flavors to try if you have not already.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I hope it was informative and helped you along your own culinary journey.
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