Under a Tamarind Tree
The tamarind tree (Tamarindus Indica L) is a large tree that can grow to be 80 to 100 feet tall. Native to Africa, it was introduced to Southeast Asia and South America where it is now well established. From India to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippine, Malaysia and Indonesia, tamarind trees play a significant role in Southeast Asian cuisine and culture. I have been fortunate to have traveled to Malaysia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam and have seen how our cultures and cuisines have evolved in almost the same ways around tamarind trees and their fruit.
The tamarind tree bears leaves and flowers that can be cooked like vegetables.
When the fruits are green, we snack or pickle them. The mature brown pods are made into a candy or kept for cooking. My grandmother loved adding a young tamarind leaf to her fish soup, and she also cleaned her brass ware with tamarind until it was shiny and pinkish. When I was young I loved playing with tamarind flowers. They were small, but have a beautiful orchid-like flower. The wood from tamarind tree is perfect for making a butcher block or cutting board. And most importantly of all, the large tamarind tree provides shade and a social gathering place during the day.
One of the first things you will want to learn about cooking with tamarind is how to turn a dry tamarind fruit paste or fruit pulp into a concentrate form that is ready to use in daily cooking. You won’t have any problem finding tamarind paste to buy; it is abundant in Asian and Latino markets. In southern Thailand we use tamarind concentrate in dipping sauces, sorbets, salad dressings, chutney, beverages, peanut sauce, stir-fry sauce, curry, soup, and any dish that needs a gentle acidic flavor to heighten it. You can also find new ways of your own to use this fruity, acidic concentrate; below are several photos of dishes from my hometown to give you ideas.Tamarind is one of the ingredients in Worcestershire sauce, but there is not a perfect substitute for it as the fruity flavor of tamarind is so unique.
Tamarind Fruit is a Heart of Southeast Asian Cooking
Above is my home town spicy soup similar to Tom Kha Gai (chicken sweet and sour soup with galangal and coconut milk). Tamarind gives the soup a nice gentle sour and refreshing taste.
Tamarind concentrate is used in salad dressings to add a nice layer of flavors to a fruit salad. When combines with palm sugar, it provides a sophisticated balance to the flavors.
Phuket’s signature tamarind sauce (Nam Jim Makham) for grilled jackfish over charcoal husks.
The famous Thai Kai Look Keuy, Son-In-Law Eggs, has a well-balanced, gentle and fruity sour taste from tamarind, the sweet of palm sugar, a highlight of fish sauce, and the excitement of a few pinches of chili powder. It also has umami—or savoriness—one of the five basic tastes together with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
Tamarind concentrate is an important part of Phad Thai, the renowned dish of Thailand. We can’t call it Phad Thai without tamarind concentrate!
Sour curry is a non-coconut curry soup. Tamarind is an important part of the fish broth that gives the sour curry fish or seafood a harmonious balance. It’s flavor profile combines fruity, sour-sweet, and spicy.
Stir-fried prawns with tamarind sauce is another signature dish from Phuket.
Thailand ranks first in the world in the production of Tamarind and has the largest tamarind plantation in the world. Tamarind fruits resemble brown, flat, fava beans. When ripe, the fruit has a long, dark-brown pod with 5 to 8 seeds. Remove the shell, vein and seeds to get the dried and sometimes sticky fruit flesh. It will stay fresh for a year.
Two varieties of tamarind from Thailand are available in the US markets. One of them is the sweet variety, which you seldom see. It comes in a beautiful box with many good looking brown pods that you can crack open and eat like any dried fruit. It has a sweet fruity taste, reminiscent of dried apricots.
The sour variety of tamarind is the most common and the most important for Thai and Southeast Asia cooking. It is available in Asian markets either as a package of dried fruit in a 16-ounce rectangular brick, or ready to use in a plastic jar. The three forms of tamarind are shown in the photo above. The dried fruit form give a purer sour flavor and doesn’t need refrigeration. The concentrate form must be kept in the refrigerator or freezer until ready for use. There is no best substitute for tamarind.
How to make a ready-to-use tamarind concentrate
Yield: 2 cups8 ounces tamarind flesh, about half of a 16-ounce package 2 1/2 cups boiling water
Place the chunk of tamarind into a large bowl, then pour boiling water over it and let it sit until the water is cool enough to handle. Massage and squeeze the tamarind in the water with both hands so the water and hands rub the tamarind to make a thick concentrate; the pulp and liquid should resemble a thick soup. Strain liquid though a large sieve into a medium pot. Squeeze the tamarind to get out all of the liquid, then discard the solid. Bring the strained liquid to a boil and cook for 2 minutes. Store and keep in refrigerator for two weeks, or in the freezer for 6 months.
Pranee’s note: To be safe, I recommend only using Tamarind grown in Thailand in my recipes.© 2011 Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen I Love Thai cooking Pranee teaches Thai Cooking classes in the Seattle area. Her website is: I Love Thai cooking.com .
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