Buying and using tamarind
Tamarind is the fibrous, dark brown, gooey pulp that surrounds the seeds (which are inside a knobbly, velvety brown pod) of the tree called tamarindus indica. The English word “tamarind” comes from the Arabic “tammar hindi” which means Indian date — the pulp is date-coloured with the soft sticky consistency of a fresh date.
For the Gulf Arabs, tamarind came from India (it spread there in prehistoric times), even though it was originally from Africa. In India during the Raj there was a saying “the tetul gacch shakshi” which meant “the tamarind tree witness”.
This described an unreliable witness, because outside the court houses there was always a shady evergreen tamarind tree where unscrupulous lawyers would coach witnesses to testify the way they wanted them to.
The pulp of the tamarind has a spicy, aromatic, sweet and very sour flavour (a bit like a very sour prune). It is for this sourness that it is prized and used to lend a pleasant sour flavour to dishes in cuisines from Southeast Asia to the Middle East. It is also one of the ingredients in Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce.
Tamarind paste and concentrate
Tamarind is for sale in two forms here, “paste” or “concentrate” in the form of a thick brown liquid, or as a sticky compressed block of the dark brown whole shelled pods, sometimes called “wet tamarind”. I have seen balls of wet tamarind for sale in the markets in Fiji.
There are many brands of paste and concentrate. They all have different degrees of sourness, so they are not necessarily interchangeable when tamarind is called for in a recipe. Use the brand you like and adjust the amount depending on how sour you want the dish.
I use the Thai brand called “Pantai Norasingh Tamarind Paste” and I stick to it as I know how sour it is. Store it in the fridge and it will last for months.
The blocks of shelled pulp need a bit of easy processing before you can use them, as you need to get rid of the seeds and fibrous husks. Simply break up the block into small pieces, put it into a heatproof bowl and cover with hot water. Let it stand for 20 minutes or so, then push it through a sieve. The seeds and fibrous parts will stay behind and what goes through the sieve will be tamarind paste or concentrate.
Obviously the amount of water you add and how much you push through the sieve will determine how concentrated, and thus how sour, your tamarind be. Store blocks of wet tamarind in an airtight container so it doesn’t dry out.
The homemade paste will keep in the fridge for a week, but fresh is best. Like children in Asia, I quite like eating the unsieved pulp (spit out the seeds and fibres) sweetened with a bit of sugar. It is like the best sour lolly. The pulp can also be sweetened, diluted with water, chilled and used as a drink.
How to use
Tamarind is primarily used as a souring agent in food (in India the main souring agents in food are either tamarind or yoghurt). In Asia it is used with fish, chicken, beef and pork but is also good with sauteed potatoes, leeks, baby onions or eggplant. You may need to balance the sourness with sugar or another sweet ingredient. One excellent New Zealand product which uses tamarind is “Jenny’s Kitchen Tamarind Chutney”.