The Simple Joys of Tamarind

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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’d 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’d quickly devour. Sometimes, if I’d planned well or displayed an ounce of patience, I’d 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 a part of the local cuisines. However, tamarind isn’t exactly a stranger in the West. It’s 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’re 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’s possible with tamarind, I’ve 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’s 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 is remains close to my heart. Cooking with tamarind keeps that excitement alive.

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