Tamarind paste is made from a sour, dark, sticky fruit that grows in a pod on a tamarind tree. While some cuisines use tamarind paste to make desserts and even candy, in Thai cooking it is used mostly in savory dishes. Classic pad thai sauce is made with tamarind, as are some Thai curries and seafood dishes. Indian curries also call for tamarind. It is also a common ingredient in Indian and Mexican cuisines, as well as Vietnamese, Latin, and Caribbean cooking. It is also a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, contributing to the distinctive tang.
Shelf Life: months or even years
Place of Origin: Africa
Most Common Use: pad thai
What Is Tamarind Paste?
Tamarind paste is from the fruit—or pods—of the tamarind tree, specifically the pulp that surrounds the seeds within the pod. The tamarind tree is a common hardwood fruit tree that is native to Africa but now grows all over Asia and Mexico. It bears large brown pods that contain the tamarind fruit. The dark reddish-brown fruit is removed from the pods and must be separated from the seeds to become a ready-to-use cooking paste. You can make it yourself or buy it premade, but it's not expensive, and it keeps for an extensive amount of time.
Fun fact: The tamarind tree is leguminous, and it's part of the Fabaceae family. Its fruits are technically legumes.
How to Cook With Tamarind Paste
Tamarind paste is easy to use straight from the container. Because of its sour taste, whatever recipe you are making will need sugar or some kind of sweetener; when combined with sugar, tamarind gives dishes a beautiful but subtle, sweet-sour flavor. The thickness and strength of tamarind paste vary widely depending on which brand you use. If the paste is runny, you will need to add more to achieve the right flavor. Taste-test your recipe to achieve the right sweet-sour balance, adding more paste or more sweetener until the desired flavor is reached.
What Does It Taste Like?
Tamarind paste tastes very sour, with a somewhat citrusy taste. It does have notes of smoke and caramel as well, making for a complex flavor profile. It is thick, sticky, and resembles molasses.
Tamarind Paste Recipes
Tamarind paste is used in many Asian dishes, including noodle recipes, curries, sauces, and soups. It can also be mixed into uncooked dips and chutneys. It is ideal in a marinade since its acidic quality helps to tenderize the meat. Tamarind paste is also found in recipes for desserts, candies, cocktails, and other beverages, such as the very common and well-loved agua fresca de tamarindo, in Mexico
Where to Buy Tamarind Paste
Tamarind paste is sold in a jar or plastic container. Since the paste is strong and condensed, one jar will last a long time. Tamarind paste can be found in some Asian food stores, but you might have more luck buying tamarind paste in Indian grocers. It can also be purchased online fairly easily.
If you'd like to make your own, it's not hard. Dried pods can be easily acquired in Asian stores and even some supermarkets. Open them up and remove the fruit. Simmer them with about 1/4 cup of water in a saucepan for about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and use the back of a spoon to gently mash the fruit against the bottom and sides of the pan. Strain the brown liquid out, and press the fruit through a fine-mesh sieve to extract as much pulp as possible, while straining out the seeds. Your tamarind paste is now ready to use.
Although one might balk at the idea of substituting something for tamarind paste, sometimes you can't find an ingredient, or the urge to make a dish with it strikes when a grocery store isn't open. There are two common substitutes for tamarind paste—one is a combination of vinegar and sugar and the other is fresh lime juice. The vinegar-sugar mix works well in dishes like pad thai chicken. If your recipe calls for 1 tablespoon tamarind paste, substitute with 1 tablespoon vinegar mixed with 1 tablespoon brown sugar. If using fresh lime juice, substitute 2 tablespoons lime juice for every 1 tablespoon tamarind paste.
Both substitutes work best when the amount of tamarind paste is 2 tablespoons or less. Neither substitute works well if the recipe you wish to make is based on tamarind as the main ingredient, such as in a recipe for Thai tamarind fish.
Most jars and containers of tamarind paste say to store in a cool, dry place, which means your spice cabinet will do just fine. You will find, however, that cooks who use tamarind often recommend storing in the refrigerator to ensure longer shelf life and freshness. You may have to stir the contents before using or dilute it a bit with water, as it tends to thicken. It will last for months if it's properly sealed .
US Department of Health & Human Services. FoodSafety App. Tamarind paste. Updated April 26, 2019.