I wasn’t a terribly naughty child by any means, but I had my share of errant behavior that kept my parents busy. Summers seemed to bring out the best or the worst in me, depending on which side of the equation you viewed it.
I loved climbing the tall, wide mango and tamarind trees in my neighborhood in Mumbai, India, then known as Bombay, to grab whatever fruit adorned their branches. If the pods lay higher and out of reach, as they most often did, I would resort to tossing sticks and stones to knock them off. The neighbors’ complaints, parental reprimands and my adventure-related scraped knees and bruised arms were all well worth their promise.
There is a thrill that accompanies the cracking of a brittle tamarind pod. Hidden beneath that unassuming brown shell lies a soft, sticky, sweet-and-sour pulp I would quickly devour. Sometimes, if I had planned well or displayed an ounce of patience, I would sprinkle salt over the flesh to make this joyous summer flavor even more pleasurable.
Tamarind is quite special. It looks like a big bean pod, and indeed it is. The fruit of a leguminous tree, it emerges soft and green, eventually becoming brown with a brittle shell. A dark caramel-colored pulp encases the seeds, which are discarded. Depending on when the pods are picked, their flavor will change: Sugar increases over time as the fruit ripens, while the sourness decreases. At home, it was often among the most common ingredients we used to add sourness to our cooking, second only to vinegar and followed by limes.
That tamarind thrives in hot climates is not really surprising. It originated in the warmer parts of Africa and, at some point, made its way to India and other parts of Asia, where it quickly became part of the local cuisines. However, tamarind isn’t exactly a stranger in the West. It is used in the production of Worcestershire sauce, a condiment used in everything from cocktails to savory preparations. And the sourness in tamarind comes primarily from tartaric acid, which is also used to produce cream of tartar, an ingredient in baking.
One of tamarind’s most useful qualities is that both the fruit and the extract last for months, if stored properly. I suspect this longevity, along with its ability to grow easily, is one of the many reasons tamarind is such a popular ingredient in places like Goa, where heat and humidity can reduce the shelf life of other staples.
While making tamarind extract is easy (all you need is a kettle of boiling water to steep and soften the tamarind for a few minutes), knowing what type of tamarind to buy can be confusing, given the various names on the packaging. A box labeled “Sweet Tamarind” sits atop my kitchen counter, reserved solely for the purpose of eating directly as I would enjoy any other fruit. But, when it comes to cooking, opt for the varieties labeled “Sour Tamarind.” They are noticeably sour with a faintly weak sweet note, showing that the fruit just hasn’t ripened enough. Sour tamarind brings that bright edge to a stew, curry or soup, and even sweets.
Tamarind is also sold as a liquid concentrate. Some of these are prepared by heating tamarind to reduce its volume, but one of the side effects is a loss in fruity flavor and an unpleasant aftertaste. Avoid them.
In Goan cooking, when making dal, curries or stews, unripe tamarind flesh is sometimes rolled into a small ball and tossed directly in. Heat and water dissolve the flesh and release its fruity sourness. On other occasions, tamarind is extracted with hot water, then added.
Besides its inclusion in savory dishes, tamarind is also used in sweet preparations, from the popular sweet-and-sour chutneys used in Indian street food to spicy tamarind candies.
To give you a sense of what is possible with tamarind, I have included a few different recipes. The Goan shrimp soup is something I grew up eating often, and, here, tamarind is added directly to the soup during cooking. In the roasted potatoes, it is used as a finishing touch, in the form of a dressing inspired by those chutneys of Indian street food. For a sweeter option, try the peppered fig and almond cake, in which the tamarind is incorporated into a glaze. It makes the warmer notes of the spices and figs stand out.
These days, I no longer climb tamarind pod-laden trees, but the ingredient remains close to my heart. Cooking with tamarind keeps that excitement alive.
Recipe: Tamarind Paste
Yield: About 1 cup
Total time: 1 hour
- 9 ounces tamarind fruit pulp (from a compressed block or from 15 to 20 shelled pods)
- 1 1/2 cups boiling water
1. Separate the tamarind into small chunks and place the fruit into a medium heatproof bowl. (If using whole tamarind pods, remove and discard the outer shell and use the soft fruit inside.)
2. Pour the boiling water over the tamarind, submerge completely, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit for 30 to 45 minutes. Stir the tamarind occasionally with a fork at first, then, as the water cools, rub the fruit between your fingers to separate it from the seeds. The mixture will turn thick and pulpy.
3. Set a fine mesh sieve over a medium bowl and pass the mixture through to remove any fibrous materials and seeds, pressing firmly with a large spoon to squeeze out as much liquid as possible and scraping the tamarind from the bottom of the strainer into the bowl. The final consistency should be thick, almost like ketchup. Transfer the tamarind paste to a clean jar or container. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.
Tips: If the paste is too thin, simmer it over low heat, without letting it boil. You can also reduce the paste in a glass baking dish set in a 325-degree oven. Let cook until it thickens, about 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the surface area of the baking dish.
Recipe: Shrimp, Cilantro and Tamarind Soup
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
- 1 pound large raw shrimp, fresh or frozen, shelled and deveined
- 4 cups warm water
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small yellow or white onion, peeled and finely minced
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and grated
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon tamarind paste (not concentrate)
- Kosher salt
- 1 bunch cilantro, leaves and stems minced
- 1 green chile, such as serrano or Thai chile, thinly sliced
1. Place the shrimp and the water in a medium saucepan. Cook over low heat until the shrimp turns pink, about 10 minutes for fresh shrimp and 15 minutes for frozen. Increase the heat to high, bring the liquid to a boil and immediately remove from heat. Separate the shrimp and the liquid, and reserve both.
2. Wipe the saucepan dry with a clean paper towel. Heat the oil in the saucepan over medium. Add the onion and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes until it turns translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, until the tomato paste begins to deepen in color. Add the black pepper and tamarind paste, then stir in the reserved cooking liquid and mix until fully combined. Taste and season with salt.
3. Increase the heat to high and bring the liquid to a boil. Remove from heat and fold in the reserved shrimp, cilantro and green chile. Serve hot.
Recipe: Roasted New Potatoes With Garlic and Tamarind
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 1 hour
1 1/2 pounds yellow new potatoes, about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in width
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 garlic cloves, peeled and grated
2 tablespoons tamarind paste (not concentrate)
1 tablespoon date syrup, honey or maple syrup
1 teaspoon lime juice
1 medium shallot, peeled and minced
2 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 green chile, such as a serrano or Thai chile, minced (optional)
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees and place a rack in the top third of the oven.
2. Scrub the potatoes under running water to remove any grit or dirt. Slice the potatoes in half lengthwise and place them in a medium saucepan. Fill the saucepan with enough water to cover them by 1 inch. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for another 6 minutes until easily pierced with a sharp knife but still firm.
3. Drain the water and place the potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt. Drizzle the oil and sprinkle the cumin over the potatoes, and toss to coat well. In a roasting pan or baking sheet lined with aluminum foil, spread the potatoes out, cut-side up. Roast on the upper rack of the oven, flipping halfway through roasting, until they turn golden brown and crispy, about 35 minutes.
4. As the potatoes cook, mix the butter and garlic in a small bowl. Two or three minutes before the potatoes are done, pour the butter-garlic mixture over the potatoes and turn off the oven. Return the pan to the oven to cook in the residual heat for 2 to 3 minutes, being careful not to let the garlic burn. Remove the pan from the oven, and transfer the potatoes to a serving bowl.
5. In a small bowl, mix the tamarind paste, date syrup and lime juice. When ready to serve, pour the mixture over the potatoes and toss to coat well. Top with the shallots, scallions, cilantro and green chile, if using. Serve warm.
Recipe: Almond, Black Pepper and Fig Cake With Tamarind Glaze
Yield: 12 servings
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
For the Cake:
- 1/2 cup/115 grams unsalted butter (1 stick), melted, plus more for greasing the baking dish
- 12 to 14 fresh ripe figs
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 cups/300 grams granulated sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
- 2 cups/225 grams blanched almond flour
- 1 cup/130 grams all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 large eggs, chilled
- 1 cup/240 milliliters full-fat plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
For the Tamarind Glaze:
- 1 cup/125 grams confectioners’ sugar
- 2 tablespoons tamarind paste (not concentrate)
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with a little butter.
2. Trim and discard the stalks from the figs. Slice the figs in half lengthwise, and place them in a small bowl. Sprinkle the pepper and 2 tablespoons sugar over the figs, and toss to coat well.
3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Sift twice through a fine mesh sieve to remove any clumps and return to the large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk melted butter, 1 1/2 cups sugar, eggs and yogurt until smooth and combined. (It will be very thick.) Whisk in the almond extract.
4. Make a small well in the center of the dry ingredients, and pour in the whisked liquid ingredients. Using an outward-to-inward circular motion, fold with a spatula until the mixtures are completely combined, and no visible flecks of dry ingredients remain. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and smooth the top with an offset spatula. Top the cake with the sliced figs with the cut sides facing up.
5. Bake cake until the surface is golden brown and the figs release their juices and turn slightly caramelized, about 1 hour, rotating halfway through baking. If it is browning too quickly, loosely tent the cake with foil. The cake is done when a skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove the baked cake and let cool for 15 minutes.
6. As the cake cools, prepare the tamarind glaze: In a medium bowl, whisk the confectioners’ sugar, tamarind paste and oil until smooth. If the glaze is too thick, it can be thinned by adding a teaspoon or two of water.
7. Once the cake has cooled for 15 minutes, pour the glaze over, and serve warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate any leftovers and eat within 3 days.
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