Culinary Arts

What Is Tamarind? How to Use Tamarind Paste and 6 Easy Tamarind Recipes

Written by MasterClass

Jun 3, 2019 • 5 min read

From tangy soups to sweet chutneys to juices and carbonated drinks, tamarind is a versatile ingredient used to heighten flavor in both sweet and savory dishes. The fruit comes from the tamarind tree and is cocooned inside seed pods. It has a date-like texture and is crushed to make tamarind paste or a less-diluted tamarind concentrate. The fruit can also be extracted from fresh pods or purchased in chunks. It is a culinary staple in the Caribbean, India, Thailand, and Mexico.

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What Is Tamarind?

Tamarind is a tropical fruit used as an additive flavor in cooking. Harvested from the brown, crescent-shaped pods of the tamarind tree, the sticky pulp inside is removed from around the seeds. Also known as tamarindo and Indian date, tamarind is high in tartaric acid which adds a tart, sweet, or sour taste to dishes and drinks.

Tamarind is in the legume family, or Fabaceae, alongside peas, lentils, and peanuts. Indigenous to Africa, tamarind is now grown in tropical climates around the world, particularly in India, Southeast Asia, and the West Indies.

What Is Tamarind Paste?

With a naturally thick, fibrous consistency, tamarind is most often softened into a paste before being added to recipes. It is also simple to make from either a slab of the tamarind fruit or from the pods. Once removed from the pod, the sticky pulp is pulled away from the tamarind seeds. The raw fruit is then steeped in hot water for thirty minutes and drained through a sieve to remove the fibrous threads (and seeds if not removed at the beginning.)

How to Buy and Store Tamarind Paste

Tamarind paste can be found on the shelves of specialty Latin, Indian, or Asian grocery stores. Tamarind paste can be kept in a cool, dry place, like a cupboard, but refrigeration will extend its shelf life.

What Does Tamarind Taste Like?

The taste of tamarind ranges from a sweet and sour to a tangy and tart flavor, often depending on the other ingredients it is mixed with. For example, sweet ingredients, like sugar, can take the edge off of sour tamarind flavors. Taste can also depend on how ripe the fruit is. The less ripe a tamarind is, the sourer the taste. As it matures and ripens, tamarinds get sweeter.

6 Ways to Use Tamarind in Cooking

Just a little tamarind goes a long way when it comes to adding flavor to a dish. Tamarind has a distinct sweet and sour taste that seasons, balances, and complements the flavors of many dishes. There are a variety of ways to cook with tamarind.

  1. A couple of tablespoons of tamarind brings a sour quality to a sweet side dish like chutney.
  2. The acidity of tamarind is a perfect meat tenderizer. It is often added to marinades to soften thick cuts of beef before they are cooked. It’s also why tamarind is a primary ingredient of Worcestershire sauce.
  3. Tamarind is a staple of Indian curries and spicy dishes, where it is often paired with coconut milk to reduce its sour taste. Other spices often mixed with tamarind curries include ginger, turmeric, coriander, and garam masala.
  4. While not the favored part of the tamarind fruit, the tamarind seed is edible. Caribbean cultures roast them as a snack and ground up seeds are an ingredient in Indian cakes.
  5. Whisked with fish sauce, sugar, and vinegar, tamarind is a staple of the base sauce used to make pad thai.
  6. Despite its strong flavor, tamarind can be the primary ingredient of a dish. Combined with sugar, which can tone down the tart taste, tamarind balls are a regular dessert in the Caribbean Islands, where tamarind trees have been growing since the sixteenth century.

Is Tamarind Healthy?

Tamarind has a wide range of health benefits, including ample vitamin C, tamarind can reduce fevers and high acidity that acts as a coolant and is used to help regulate body temperatures in the hot equatorial climates where it is grown.

How to Substitute Tamarind

When tamarind paste is not available, substitutions can be made to achieve that sweet-sour taste that tamarind creates.

  • In western dishes, lemon adds that sour zest to a dish and can be a good alternative.
  • Another option is vinegar and brown sugar. For every tablespoon of tamarind paste that a recipe calls for, add one tablespoon of vinegar mixed with one tablespoon of brown sugar.
  • Finally, since Worcestershire sauce contains a good amount of the tart fruit, it can also be substituted for tamarind paste in equal amounts.

6 Easy Recipes That Use Tamarind

Below are some easy recipes that make use of tamarind’s distinct flavor.

  1. Tamarind balls. Moisten tamarind fruit with hot water. Mix four cups seed-free tamarind pulp and two cups of brown sugar (and a little chili powder if desired) by hand and let the mixture rest for 12 hours. Sprinkle in two more cups of sugar and hand-roll into balls. Dry them for two more hours, then give them one final roll in brown sugar.
  2. Beef and broccoli. Whisk together tamarind paste, soy sauce, minced garlic, sugar, and lemon. Add sliced flank steak to the marinade and refrigerate for an hour. Heat a skillet with oil and add the beef. When it’s cooked through, add any remaining marinade and the broccoli, cooking until broccoli is tender.
  3. Vegetable curry. Heat coconut oil in a wok or pan. Stir onion until translucent. Add in garlic and ginger for several minutes. Next, add curry, cumin, turmeric, and a little touch of salt. Mix in your choice of vegetables, like broccoli, carrots, and potatoes. Add tamarind paste and coconut milk. Stir and let simmer until vegetables are soft.
  4. Chutney with tamarind. Start with either tamarind paste or tamarind concentrate diluted in hot water on the stove. Add brown sugar and stir until sugar is dissolved into the mixture. Add cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt, sugar, and chili powder. Reduce to a simmer, adding water as needed to loosen the thickening chutney.
  5. Agua Fresca. Bring water to a boil in a pot. Shell fresh tamarind pods and remove any stringy fibers from the pulp. Remove boiling water from heat and add sugar and the tamarind fruits. Let it sit for an hour and a half. When water is cool enough, squeeze out the tamarind seeds from the softened fruit. Blend the sugar-water-pulp mixture. Strain if a thinner, less-pulpy consistency is desired. Add a little more water and cool in the refrigerator.
  6. Pad Thai. In a bowl, whisk tamarind paste, vinegar, fish sauce, and sugar. Soak and soften rice noodles in water for half an hour. Heat a skillet and add vegetable oil. Add sliced chicken breast and cook fully. In another pan, heat oil and add garlic. Add an egg until it is scrambled. Add chicken, rice noodles, and tamarind mixture. Garnish with peanuts and lime slices.

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