Have you tried tamarind? It’s a big, wide world of flavor and spice out there. Growing up, in an Italian family, I was familiar with the varieties of herbs and spices that you would expect: rosemary, basil, thyme, and others… There were so many ways to flavor food that I had never even heard of. Tamarind is one of those and now, I love it. It’s an ingredient that I had come across in many recipes, but I could never find it in stores. When I first saw tamarind, I wasn’t sure what to make of it and I had so many questions about what it actually is. Is it a bean? A fruit? A spice? To me, it looked like a thicker version of the pods of a honey locust tree. But then, I tried it in an Indonesian dish consisting of fresh tempeh served in a tamarind-based sauce with caramelized onions and its unique sweet, tangy, and slightly spicy flavor won me over. Now, tamarind has a place in my pantry and it definitely belongs in yours, too, especially if you are a fan of Asian, Indian, African, and Caribbean flavors.
What is Tamarind?
Tamarind is a tree that thrives in warm, sunny climates. Tamarind trees are native to Africa, but they also grow in India and South Asia, Asia, the Caribbean, Mexico, and tropical climates across the globe.Tamarind trees produce fruits which are also called tamarind, that grow in hard brown pods. They are also considered indehiscent legumes. Tamarind pods contain between two and ten large seeds and a sticky, sour pulp, which is the part we use in cooking. Tamarind is a good source of dietary fiber, and has been used to treat constipation. It is also a good source of copper, potassium, calcium, iron, selenium, zinc, and magnesium. You can find tamarind in traditional recipes from all these countries, but India is the largest producer of commercial tamarind in the world.
How to You Use It?
Tamarind pulp is sweet, sour, and tart and can be eaten straight out of the pod. The pulp of the young fruit is green and very sour while mature tamarind pulp has a pleasant, sweet-sour taste and paste-like texture. Did you know tamarind is actually the ingredient that gives Worcestershire sauce its tang? Try adding tamarind paste to this Homemade Worcestershire Sauce. You can buy the pods in whole or you can buy jars of tamarind pulp — just be sure to check for additives. If you buy whole tamarind pods, store them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh.
Tamarind is very versatile. In Mexico, it is used to make soda and in both Mexico and the Caribbean, the pulp is sweetened, rolled into balls, coated with sugar, and sold as candy. In the India, tamarind pulp is used to make sweet chutney that can be used on anything. Tamarind chutney is a key ingredient in Dabeli, an Indian street food consisting of spiced potatoes served between a pav (burger bun) garnished with peanuts, pomegranate seeds, sev (crunchy chickpea flour snack), and tamarind chutney. Try this recipe for Dabeli, which teaches you how to make sweet tamarind chutney. Tamarind is also a popular ingredient in South Indian curries and sambars (stews). Like this White Pumpkin and Lentil Sambar, which uses tamarind along with a wealth of spices to create a hearty flavorful stew. Tamarind is also used in African cuisine; this recipe for Spiced Chickpeas With Harissa and Tamarind is spicy, tangy, and hearty.
It’s also often an ingredient in pad Thai sauce. To learn how to make your own pad Thai sauce using tamarind, check out this recipe for Shirataki Pad Thai. It’s also used to give this Tom Yum Soup its tang.
Where to Buy
Depending on where you live, it can be easy to find tamarind. If you live near an Indian supermarket, you should be able to find tamarind in all its various forms and you should also be able to find it in Asian supermarkets. You might even find tamarind in the international aisle of your local grocery store — it never hurts to check!
If you can’t find tamarind anywhere, you can always it buy online. Try this Spice Perfection Tamarind Paste ($5.99 for 17.6 ounces), which contains no additives. You can use it to make chutneys, sauces, candies, and more. Or, try this Fresh Thai Tamarind ($12.95 for 16 ounces) and make the paste from scratch. You can also try this Swad Tamarind and Dates Chutney ($8.99 for an 8-ounce jar) if you would prefer not to make your own. If you want candy, try this Pulparindo ($5.93 for 10 ounces), a Mexican candy that is made with tamarind pulp, sugar, and chilis or try these Tamarind Balls ($6.99 for 8 ounces).
More Recipes Using Tamarind!
If you’re ready to get started cooking tamarind, we have recipes for you to try. This Gulla Kolupkari is an Indian spicy eggplant curry from Konkani cuisine and this Punjabi Chana Masala takes chickpea curry to a new level with its sweet, spicy, and tangy flavors. This Sweet Potato With Tamarind and Coconut was inspired by South Indian cuisine and is perfect if you’re looking for a way to spice up your everyday sweet potatoes. Try this Thai-inspired Minced Tempeh Salad With Lemongrass, Sesame, and Cashews, where tempeh is marinated in a sticky, sweet, and tangy tamarind-based sauce. For a savory breakfast, try these Savory Chickpea Flour Pancakes With Tamarind Syrup. Finally, try the recipe for tamarind date chutney in this Dabeli and serve it as a dipping sauce for these Bengali Samosa, these fusion Baked Samosa Flautas, or your favorite appetizer.
Sweet, spicy, and tangy, it’s a wonder how tamarind has managed to fly under the radar in Western cuisine for so long. Have you tried tamarind? Let us know your favorite way to use it in the comments!
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My Italian grandmother lived in Los Angeles in a predominately Mexican neighborhood and she always had tamarindo syrup which we added to water for a very sweet tasty drink. I always thought it was an Italian thing but after reading your article, I realize she probably learned about it from her Mexican friends. This was in the 40s and early 50s.
I recently found it at my grocery store in soda pop and powdered form. Yummy……I now live in Arizona.