It's sweet, intense, and acerbic at once. It balances, tenderizes, and has the ability to heal. Such descriptors could sum up the complexities of love. But in this instance, I describe tamarind, the versatile ingredient that brightens and brings contrast to whatever it touches. Tamarind has the power to bring sharp relief to the sweetest of desserts and to infuse sweet-tart pleasure into spicy, savory dishes that satisfy all comers. How do I love thee, tamarind? Let me count the ways.
I've always been a sweet-and-sour person. My Indonesian mixed heritage naturally placed tamarind as one of my most essential kitchen staples; I use the plump, pod-like fruit widely in soups such as ikan kuah asam (Timorese Fish-and-Tamarind Soup), to season peanut sauce or the hot chile condiment sambal, and in a series of sour-and-spicy dishes known as asam pedas featuring tamarind and chile. It is as common an ingredient as lime or lemon in an array of food cultures, but for many, tamarind serves an even deeper and more meaningful purpose.
Indigenous to Africa, the tamarind tree has been cultivated for thousands of years in tropical parts of the world, including Asia, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Growing up to 80 feet tall, it can live close to 200 years with a yield of 385 pounds of fruit every year. The foliage of the tamarind tree provides a fernlike canopy of shade, its feathered leaves opening up to the morning sun and closing at night. A member of the pea family (Fabaceae), the leguminous tree produces a hanging fruit wrapped inside a brittle, bulbous pod resembling a long, knobbly, light-brown finger, 4 to 8 inches long. Cocooned within it is tamarind pulp, a sticky, fibrous mass with a date-like texture, encased in strings and veins that surround up to a dozen seeds, depending on where it is grown.
No part of the evergreen tamarind tree is wasted; its versatility is part of its magic. Its beauty has been remarked upon in literature for centuries (Edgar Allan Poe wrote of "summer dreams beneath the tamarind tree"), and many cultures revere it. The tamarind tree is sacred to the Bambara people of Mali, where it symbolizes multiplicity and renewal. In Myanmar, some believe it is the dwelling place of the rain god, and in Buddhism, it represents faithfulness and forbearance. Tamarind lumber is used for woodwork, its pulp as a metal polish for ornaments in Buddhist temples. In India, tamarind leaves are made into a tea to calm a sore throat and add a fresh, sour flavor to curries and chutneys, while tamarind seeds are ground down for use as the souring agent in bread. In the Caribbean, whole tamarind seeds are roasted and enjoyed as a snack.
Although every part of the tree is used, it's the fruit—the tamarind pods—that has the greatest application in cookery, offering a broad and brilliant spectrum of flavor. The unripe fruit starts its early life green and highly acidic but gradually sweetens and darkens in color as it ripens. At its most mature, tamarind becomes almost entirely sweet, with only a whisper of sourness. In Mexico and the Caribbean, it is common for the ripest fruits to be plucked from the tree and cracked open, the sweet, alluring flesh eaten by children and adults alike. When the flesh of sweet tamarind is combined with brown sugar and rolled, it becomes a Caribbean delicacy known as tamarind balls, sometimes seasoned with a little ground hot pepper or rum. In between those two stages is light reddish-brown ripe tamarind, which has an intensely and pleasantly sour taste with a refreshing, acidic tang reminiscent of caramel and dried stone fruit. It's the most common form of tamarind and the one I lean on in my cooking. A key ingredient in much of South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine, ripe tamarind enhances savory dishes such as soups, curries, rice dishes, stews, and stir-fries—it is one of the defining features of the stir-fried noodle dish pad thai. It's ripe tamarind that gives Worcestershire sauce its distinct tang. In West Africa, tamarind pods are simmered with rice and fish in Senegal's national dish thiéboudienne—the list goes on.
One of the gifts of tamarind is that it coaxes home cooks to engage in the skill of seasoning. On its own, it tastes predominantly sour, typically providing all the acidity a dish needs, but it will need to be balanced delicately against sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, spiciness, and umami. Tamarind plays a critical role in rounding a dish without overpowering other flavors, and unlike other souring agents such as lime or lemon, it can be cooked for lengthy periods without the flavor changing or deteriorating. Used as a marinade for my smoky, lacquered Tamarind Chicken (recipe p. 90), the high acidic content of tamarind adds flavor while tenderizing.
Ripe tamarind's characteristic sharpness also takes flight in sweets, offsetting the richness of caramel in my Tamarind Millionaire's Shortbread and adding complexity and fruity acidity to cakes and contrast to candies. Combined with sugar and water, it becomes the refreshing and popular agua de tamarindo of Mexico, and with the addition of aromatics like vanilla or ginger, it transforms into thirst-quenching tamarind juice from the Caribbean and African countries spanning Cairo to the Swahili coast. Combined with lemongrass and lime leaves, I love it as a base for a tamarind twist on an Arnold Palmer or a daiquiri (read more below).
Tamarind adds its bewitching sharp-and-tangy tones to cuisines across the world; it's a magical ingredient that has the power to cure, quench, and make our mouths pucker (in the best way possible). And like the best love stories, it is rich with nuance and ripe with possibilities.
A Guide to Tamarind
Tamarind fruit can be purchased as cellophane- wrapped pulp in blocks; in jars or containers, sold as tamarind paste, puree, or concentrate; or as fresh or dried tamarind pods. For the best tamarind flavor in the recipes that follow, we call for making tamarind water from tamarind pulp or pods.
Whole tamarind pods are categorized depending on the stage at which they were harvested. Sour tamarind, or green, unripe tamarind, is the most tart and acidic. Ripe tamarind is brown, with a pleasantly strong sour taste. Sweet tamarind can be eaten straight from the pod. Source fresh pods at some major supermarkets, Asian and Indian grocers, and online.
Dried tamarind pulp is sold in cellophane-wrapped blocks that contain the membrane and seeds from tamarind pods. Once tamarind pulp has come into contact with air, it oxidizes, which is why these blocks are often medium to deep brown, or even black, in color.
Pastes are seedless and wet and are made from the flesh of tamarind that has been diluted with water, making it easy to integrate into dishes. Good-quality pastes should only contain tamarind, water, and (sometimes) a preservative, but no artificial sweeteners or corn syrup. Our testers liked Somboon brand tamarind paste, which comes in bricks.
Tamarind concentrates are thick and black with a molasses-like consistency. The intense flavor of tamarind concentrate gives oomph to the marinade for Tamarind Chicken and enlivens the caramel in Tamarind Millionaire's Shortbread. Concentrates may also be diluted to a flavor similar to tamarind water, if desired, by mixing them with water. Look for Tamicon brand.
There is also frozen unsweetened tamarind, which can have a weaker potency, so you may need to add more to taste. Thinner and less intensely flavored than other forms, simply defrost and use as needed.
Finally, there's tamarind powder, made from dehydrated and ground tamarind. This pungent, highly concentrated form of tamarind can be used to flavor candies, drinks, and sauces where a recipe calls for it, but it cannot be substituted for the paste, concentrate, pods, or pulp.
How to Make Tamarind Water
To unlock the sour power of fresh tamarind, the pods or pulp must first be made into tamarind water. This tangy essence of tamarind is made by steeping fibrous tamarind flesh in boiling water, and then straining it. An equal quantity of high-quality tamarind concentrate, like Tamicon, thinned with water may also be used in these recipes, but it will lack the bright and delicate quality of from-scratch tamarind water.
How to Make Tamarind Cocktails
Aromatic lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, and spicy ginger combine with tart fruity tamarind and rich, sweet coconut sugar to create a potent and delicious Tamarind Cocktail Base that can be used in all kinds of concoctions. Combined with rum and fresh lime juice, it becomes a zippy Tamarind Daiquiri; with the addition of tequila and a splash of club soda, it becomes a refreshing Tamarind Cooler. Or try it in combination with your favorite iced tea for Tamarind Arnold Palmer. Lara Lee, who came up with the Tamarind Cocktail Base, also loves to add a splash of it to Dark and Stormy cocktails and Mojitos. Want to prepare your cocktail mix in advance? Simply freeze the tamarind cocktail base in ice cube trays and they will melt quickly when stirred together with the remaining ingredients.