When they need some zing or tang, most Southeast Asian curries turn to the tamarind – either the juice or the flesh itself.
While the tamarind (asam jawa in Malay) is fairly ubiquitous in our cuisine, most of us don’t give it too much thought. Given how much we use it, the humble tamarind probably deserves a bit more attention.
Let’s go back to basics. The tamarind tree, the Tamarindus indica, is a hardy tropical species typically found in arid or coastal areas. It’s cultivated from seeds contained in pods, and each sapling can grow into a beautiful tree measuring 8 to 12 metres in height.
That pod is actually both a fruit and a legume and has an edible pulp or flesh that is great for use in cooking. You can also eat it as you would any other tropical fruit – right from the tree when it’s ripe and fresh. When it’s ready for consumption, the pod will turn from green to brown.
Indian cooking also uses tamarind leaves, but the fruit is what most people are after. The tamarind’s juicy pulp is sour but also has a hint of sweetness. Mature trees tend to produce nearly 180 kilograms of fruit each year, making it a popular alternative to lime or lemon juice.
We should also note its health properties. The tamarind is known to have anti-inflammatory properties as well as essential antioxidants. Tamarind may also help diabetes patient because eating the fruit or drinking its juice can cut down blood sugar. It is also rich in vitamin B, magnesium and iron, which is perfect for those suffering from low energy or fatigue. It helps to boost red blood cells and fight anaemia, and research also points to some benefits for those suffering from malaria.
Know your tamarind
Tamarind comes in several forms in addition to fresh pods, and it’s important to know the difference so that you can buy the type that’s best for your needs.
Some manufacturers offer a tamarind concentrate made up of boiled down pulp. Tamarind concentrate works best as a salad dressing, as it dissolves easily when you mix it with a little vinegar or lemon juice. A tiny bit goes a long way so use it sparingly. The tamarind concentrate may contain preservatives for longer shelf life, so it might not be for you if you prefer natural products.
Another form is blocks that have been created by compressing the flesh. If you are after fresh tamarind but can’t find pods then blocks are the next best option. You can also find sweetened tamarind syrup, too, which is usually reserved for use as an ice cream topping or in iced drinks.
Recipes tend to call for tamarind water and to get this water you remove the pulp or flesh from the pods and soak it in a cup of warm water for about 20 minutes. This method should give you enough tamarind to cook a dish for four people.
The tamarind flavour profile is complex because it adapts to other ingredients in the dish. It pairs well with aromatics like garlic, ginger and chillies. But where it gets interesting is that tamarind can do the job if a dish needs sour flavours, but it can also deliver a sweetening effect if used with coconut milk.
When you think of cooking with tamarind, Asian cuisine probably comes to mind first but the ingredient is nimble enough to accompany Western dishes too. The next time you grill chicken wings, try adding tamarind to your favourite barbeque sauce – it will give it a tangy hit.
Staying on the meat theme, if you’re not into grilling you can instead create a delicious coating of tamarind glaze for your fried or sauteed meat. This recipe combines brown sugar, tamarind juice, lime juice and ketchup to create the perfect glaze for your meatballs. Eat them in a bun or on their own, accompanied by a fresh salad.
Get even more creative and use tamarind with Western-style fish dishes. The tamarind’s job, which it does admirably, is to add another dimension to black cod. After broiling fish in the glaze, spoon over a habanero orange salsa and you have a fusion of flavours to accompany your fish.
Of course, if you still have Asian cravings, try this okra sambar to impress your family and friends. It uses over 20 spices and will surely wow the taste buds of any lover of Indian food. If you fancy some Southeast Asian street food, you can use tamarind to provide sourness to Thailand’s popular pad thai or spicy rice noodles. The tamarind juice is sprinkled over the rice noodles while they are being tossed and fried in a hot wok.
And, instead of a sweet tamarind dessert, try a cocktail for a change. Tamarind concentrate can be paired with a good quality bourbon in this recipe. Serve it with ice and an orange wedge and you’ll have a sophisticated drink to complete your meal.