Tamarind - such an evocative sounding ingredient. The mere mention of the word conjures up exotic South East Asian locales, awash with deliciously mysterious foods. These images are fairly apt, as tamarind is indeed used in all sorts of complexly flavoured tropical dishes from across Asia, and is also steeped in folklore and tradition for the countries that use this wonderful fruit.
Tamarind is the seedpod of the evergreen tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica). It grows to the fairly admirable height of 20 metres (70 feet) or so, and is widespread in tropical regions of South East and Central Asia - including Thailand, Burma and India. The tree blooms around May, maturing into fruit - or tamarind pods, from September to November.
The pod itself bears a striking resemblance to whole broad bean pods, yet while those are vividly green and up to 30 cm in length, tamarind pods are pale brown to khaki, and measure in at a modest 10-15 cm or so.
I have read many evocative tales of youngsters growing up in these regions scaling tamarind trees to illicitly reap the sharply sour, yet sweet bounty when they are in season. These childhood forays would reach a frenzied peak with the ripening of sweet tamarind (known in Thailand as makaam warn), a short-seasoned variant of regular tamarind that is sadly all too hard to locate in western countries.
So how do you use tamarind, and what does it taste like? Tamarind is almost exclusively used as a flavouring agent, rather than as an edible ingredient itself. The flavour of tamarind is unmistakably sour, indeed - along with yoghurt, it is one of the major souring agents used in Indian cuisine. But to simply describe tamarind as sour is doing this marvelous fruit a disservice. If you suck on a freshly cut lemon or lime, it will be unmistakably sour. And apart from a small amount of back palate sweetness, that is about all you will get. Tamarind also has a forcefully sour front palate, yet it is combined with a myriad of other flavours, which only gains in complexity as the flavour hits the back of your tongue. Intriguingly, warmth is also a minor player in the flavour mix of tamarind - possibly due to tongue-numbing properties found in the fruit's acid make-up. However, take that as purely passenger seat conjecture on my behalf.
Tamarind is usually found for sale in four main forms. The fresh pod itself, packaged tamarind pulp, prepared tamarind liquid, or shelled and dried tamarind. If you are outside of Asia, the first and last forms of tamarind will be the hardest to locate. Diehard tamarind lovers and hard-line adherents to traditional Asian cuisine will insist that fresh tamarind pods are the only way to go. Myself, I'm not so sure. Apart from the fact that fresh tamarind can be difficult to find (try Pontip, in Campbell St, Haymarket - if you are in Sydney), It can be a little tricky to extract the maximum flavour from the fresh pod. However, if you get your hands on some, here is the procedure. Using a small, sharp knife, pare away the coarse outer coating until you can easily split the pod down the middle. Pop the seeds out with the knife tip, and also pry out the seed membrane, which also possesses much of the flavour. If you aren't using fresh tamarind straight away, pop it into salted water to prevent discolouration. The tamarind can now be used as required in the recipe you are using.
Prepared tamarind liquid is almost universally disappointing; so only choose this as a last result. Dried tamarind is not very common, and also has a sadly thin flavour. This leaves us with the tamarind that you will be most likely to encounter - tamarind pulp. These are sold in small blocks of roughly 250 gm (1/2 lb) in size. They are a deep and dark brown in colour, with small lumps on the surface where the seeds stick out. The seeds themselves are a little smaller than your thumbnail. Generally, a recipe will call for tamarind water, and as anthropod mentions above, the pulp is usually the easiest way of achieving this. Follow her faithful-to-the-original method for tamarind water if that is what your recipe asks for.
I have a small problem with most tamarind recipes. In the main, they ask for a small amount of tamarind water to be added to a long list of other ingredients. This is fine, but rarely does a recipe allow tamarind to shine through and become the star attraction. We came up with the following recipe for the new menu at our restaurant, and it really showcases tamarind - allowing it to take centre stage rather than just a supporting role. We serve this sauce alongside a steamed fillet of ocean trout, which is then topped with wood ear mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms and watercress. It is very healthy, yet hugely flavoursome at the same time.
This tamarind sauce can also be used to dress all manner of dishes. Any steamed or grilled fish, poached chicken, shellfish, or even an Asian inspired vegetarian salad, served with steaming rice. It is sour, spicy, tangy and sweet all at the same time - totally addictive, and lasts well in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Here's the how to.
Tamarind, chilli and lemongrass sauce
Add all the ingredients except the sugar and fish sauce to a small, heavy based saucepan and cover with 500 ml (2 cups) of cold water. Place on medium heat and bring to the simmer. Using a fork, break the tamarind pulp up so it dissolves into the sauce. Simmer on a low heat for 20 minutes. Pour the sauce through a strainer and press down firmly on the solids to extract all the wonderful flavours. Rub the tamarind seeds to dislodge any flavour-giving membranes that are still attached.
While the sauce is still warm, chop, or grate the palm sugar and add along with the fish sauce. Taste - you may well need more fish sauce for salt, and more sugar to balance the acidity with sweetness.
Serve the sauce warm, or at room temperature - but never hot, which seems to play havoc with tamarind's complex acidity.