Tamarind is the most popular fruit that you’ve never heard of. But of course I exagerrate: You’re not ignorant. You’ve bought a bottle of Jarritos Tamarindo and sipped the sour-sweet soda with your torta once or twice. And perhaps there’s a crusty jar of concentrate in the back of your fridge from that time you tried to make pad thai, a jar you haven’t opened since and have been avoiding as strenuously as the mummified celery in your crisper. But largely you’ve ignored the sticky brown pod, what I think of as the tomato of the Old World, a species of African origin that migrated broadly and is now ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and even Mexico, one of its largest consumers. A Mexico without pulparindo? It’s difficult to imagine.
Tamarindus indica grows in tropical climates. The fruit of the tree is a legume, and an ugly one at that. Unripe until it turns a matte and muddy brown, tamarind is not the type of fruit to seize the public imagination (then again, who knows what an açai looks like?) When its bulbous shell is peeled, the inner flesh appears gummy, like the filling of a Fig Newton. The taste of this dense pulp, once extracted, is like a cross between lemon and molasses, intensely tangy and with caramelized overtones. As with those two flavors, tamarind works equally well in both savory and sweet applications. According to Harold McGee, the “complex, savory, roasted aroma” of tamarind is “thanks to browning reactions that take place on the tree as the pulp becomes concentrated in the hot sun.” Imagine: a fruit that takes care of cooking itself to umami perfection before it even gets to your kitchen. How thoughtful.
A little tamarind goes a very long way. Depending on its packaging and processing, it can go even further. The form most often used in recipes is a paste, processed post-consumer by soaking a bit of tamarind pulp in water and squeezing and straining out the fibrous, inedible bits (the pulp is sold in a compressed, dense block). Tamarind can also be found in an easy-to-use semi-liquid concentrate, a much more potent form that should be used sparingly, and as a syrup (often sweetened). Then of course there are the whole pods themselves.
I bought a half pound bag of whole, dried pods at Guadalupita (4722 7th Avenue, Sunset Park) for $2.50, a good deal despite their state of desiccation. Sidenote: Guadalupita has an excellent selection of dried beans and Mexican spices, as well as cheese, canned goods, and more obscure ingredients (wood ash, anyone?) than your standard Sunset Park grocer. If you don’t want to work with the whole pods, paste or concentrate should be easy to find at most Mexican or Asian groceries in the borough.
If you do buy the pods, peel the outer shell from roughly a quarter pound of fruit and pry the inner pods open to remove the seeds (small, smooth, and satisfyingly rectangular, like brown and shiny Chiclets). Cover the remaining pulp with one cup of hot water in a small bowl. Let the fruit steep for about twenty minutes, then work the flesh with your hands to release it slightly from the tough fibers. Strain the liquid through a mesh sieve, and press the soft flesh through, leaving only the fibers behind. Mix the strained liquid and pulp and store in the refrigerator. The extract will last for a week or two.
Tamarind is one of the not-so-secret ingredients in Worcestershire sauce, one of the least convenient components of pad thai, the linchpin of a popular agua fresca, an excellent meat tenderizer, delicious in sweets, jams, and chutneys, and often an effective substitute for other acids in savory dishes. Not to mention its various traditional medicinal uses: as a laxative, a fever-reducer, and an antimicrobial, among other applications. Its worldwide popularity leaves us simply drowning in potential recipes. Tamarind matches well with coconut and ginger, pork, and fish: As a start, throw it into a pan of fried pork chops in place of wine for a final glaze; mix it into a barbecue sauce (or jerk) for depth and tartness; add a smear to a parchment packet of baked fish; toss a tablespoon into a stir fry or a salad dressing in place of lemon juice or vinegar; or stir a spoonful with sugar into a glass of ice water. Suddenly you’ll wonder where tamarind has been all your life (answer: everywhere, on the DL).
If you’d prefer to try tamarind in its natural habitat, visit any Thai or Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn. Really. That dipping sauce that comes with your summer rolls? Tamarind. Fish or Duck Tamarind? On practically every take-out Thai menu in the borough. Want something more unusual? Le Grand Dakar (285 Grand Avenue, Clinton Hill) serves tamarind cole slaw. Purple Yam (1314 Cortelyou Road, Ditmas Park) serves tamarind shrimp cooked in pandan leaves. You can get a tamarind Hawaiian shave ice at the newly-opened Eton on Vanderbilt (635 Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights), a tamarind shake at La Bonita (501 Grand Avenue, Prospect Heights), a tamarind-roasted chicken at Cheryl’s Global Soul (236 Underhill Avenue, Prospect Heights), or even pick up some Trinidadian tamarind wings at Super Wings (1218 Union Street, Crown Heights).
Or you could just dish up some deviled eggs with tamarind in place of Worcestershire. Whatever floats your boat, you educated consumer of tamarind products.