Tamarind is a sticky, sour-tasting fruit. In Thai cooking, tamarind is used for a variety of dishes, from famous pad Thai noodles to fish and chicken dishes. Tamarind is also a common ingredient in Indian and Mexican cuisines.
Characteristics of Tamarind Paste
The tamarind tree is a common fruit tree that grows all over Asia and also in Mexico. It grows large brown pods that contain the tamarind fruit. The dark brown fruit is removed from the pods and must be separated from the seeds in order to use it.
The texture of tamarind is paste-like. It tastes very sour, so whatever recipe you're making will need sugar or some kind of sweetener.
Buying Tamarind Paste
Tamarind paste is just the fruit (separated from the pod and seeds) of the tamarind tree made into a ready-to-use cooking paste. It comes in a jar or plastic container. You are only likely to need one jar of it for a long time, as the paste is strong and condensed. Tamarind paste can be found in some Asian food stores, but you might have more luck buying tamarind paste in Indian food stores. It can also be purchased online.
How to Cook with Tamarind Paste
Tamarind paste is easy to use straight from the container. It is usually cooked in with other ingredients, but can also be mixed into uncooked dips and chutneys. The thickness and strength of tamarind paste vary widely depending on which brand you use. If it's a runny paste, you will need to add more in order to achieve the right flavor. Taste-test your recipe to achieve the right sweet-sour balance, adding more paste or more sweetener until you're happy with it.
How to Make Your Own Tamarind Paste at Home
Dried tamarind pods can be purchased in clear packages at Asian food stores. The pods must be opened and the fruit removed. Place fruit in a saucepan with only a little bit of water (3 to 4 tablespoons of water to 1/4 cup fruit) and simmer 10 to 15 minutes to soften. Remove the pan from the heat and use the back of a spoon or a potato masher to gently mash the fruit against the bottom and sides of the pan. Then strain the mash to get a brown liquid. Press the fruit through the strainer to get as much pulp as possible into the liquid while straining out the seeds. Your tamarind paste is now ready to use. Note that homemade pastes tend not to be as strong-tasting as the bottled variety, so you may need to add more to your recipe to achieve the same flavor.
Substitutions for Tamarind Paste
There are two common substitutes for tamarind paste. Vinegar and sugar work well in dishes like pad Thai chicken. If your recipe calls for 1 tablespoon tamarind paste, simply substitute with 1 tablespoon vinegar.
The second substitute is 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 number one flavor ingredient. such as in a recipe for Thai tamarind fish; in that case, you will need to hunt down some tamarind paste.
There is so much you can do with tamarind, and you'll find the flavor very rich and unique-tasting.