"Sour flavours are often what we yearn for to whet our appetite, especially when we are under the weather. It’s no coincidence that Vitamin C is sour, not sweet." Palisa Anderson - The Guardian
I first came across tamarind when I started to learn to cook Indian food from my little paperback, Cooking the Indian Way. I distinctly remember it - I bought it in one of those blocks and poured boiling water over it to soften it and extract the juice. But where on earth did I buy it? I cannot believe that back then in the early 70s it was available in your local supermarket, and all those Indian spices come to that. I must have found a specialist store somewhere but for the life of me I cannot remember where. These days you can get it everywhere, and not just in those solid bricks. You can get syrup, paste and instant according to Charmaine Solomon, who is somewhat scathing about the latter which she says is,
"anything but instant since it has been concentrated into a stiff paste which takes longer to dissolve than the dried pulp." Charmaine Solomon' - Encyclopedia of Asian Food
But the tamarind I used last night for a very tempting looking beef curry I found in my last
'first recipe' book, was of the brick kind. And it was pretty old - I don't like to think how old really, so this is also one of those 'lurking in the back of the cupboard' posts. I did read somewhere though that these bricks will keep almost indefinitely. And both David and I are still here to tell the tale. So if you too have some, go seek it out. And from Yotam Ottolenghi or was it Charmaine Solomon, I learnt that if you use your tamarind this way and you have some of the liquid or paste left over, then freeze it in ice cube trays for further use.
The dish I made last night which is worth repeating I have to say was simply called Beef with mushrooms. Its Indian name was the intriguing Beef Xecxec but when I looked it up I found that xecxec is indeed a Goan dish but it seems to be universally a crab dish. Nobody had a beef version. Sorry - no pictures (I should have taken one) and the recipe is a bit long (not complicated - but long) to write down here. Besides the tamarind was almost incidental - it was just added at the end for a bit of sourness. Indeed I also read somewhere that it should generally be just added at the end - as you would with lemon or lime juice.
Probably most of us associate tamarind with Indian food. Indeed the name tamarind comes from the Arabic 'tamar hindi' which means Indian date. Well the fruit paste looks a bit like dates. But it actually comes from the fruit of the tamarind tree - a tropical African tree. The tree fruits with enormous brown pods - well pretty big ones anyway, which contain seeds encased in a
thick date-like paste.
They look just a tiny bit repulsive to me - a bit like horrible worms or caterpillars. When green they are very sour, but as they age they become sweeter. In Thailand they just eat them fresh as a palate cleanser. Those bricks are formed by just removing the pods and pressing the fruit and seeds together. Sometimes they extract the seeds which are uneatable but which can produce oil which is used for cooking.
As I said we associate tamarind with Indian food and India is indeed the biggest producer today, but it seems to have originated in Africa - some say Madagascar, where the Arabs found it perhaps and took it to India. Or maybe prehistoric man took it with him when he left Africa. I have even seen that it originated in Latin America, but this seems to be untrue. It is much more likely that the Spanish and Portuguese took it there in the sixteenth century, from the Phillipines, which had got it from South East Asia. Today it is a very popular ingredient in Phillipino food and Mexico too. In the Phillipines I read that it is an ingredient in banana ketchup - a very popular condiment, though I have to say when I looked for recipes for this they had no tamarind in them.
In Mexico, as well as being used as an ingredient for cooking, it is also used to make sweets called dulce de tamarindo and a drink called aqua de tamarindo. The drink is made by boiling tamarind pods, removing the pulp, straining the water, and adding sugar. Apparently it's very refreshing. Looks a bit like coca cola. In Turkey they have a very similar drink called sharbat, for which Greg Malouf has a recipe.
The leaves of the tree - well the very young tips are also used in Indian cooking when the pods are unavailable.
The Thais are the other big users of tamarind - it's a vital component of Pad Thai, and Tom Yum Soup for example. And the British too - as a remnant of colonial India have used it as the vital ingredient in Worcestershire and HP sauce.
It's actually pretty hard to find recipes that feature tamarind. It's not usually such a major ingredient, so you need a book with a pretty good index. I read one article that said that it was a favourite ingredient of Yotam Ottolenghi's and that he used it in almost everything. I think, however, this is in the past as in his book Simple which is relatively recent he has a list of his ten favourite ingredients at the back, and it is not listed. He is obviously not loyal and has transferred his love to other things - like black garlic. Nevertheless I did find a recipe for Mint, lime and tamarind sauce from him which he maintains is a very useful condiment to have to hand.
Greg Malouf has a few recipes and Claudia Roden even wrote a book called Tamarind and Saffron, but I could only find a recipe for shallots from her.
I was about to give up finding anything to try and, as a last ditch effort found that Donna Hay has two very tempting ones. One for fish and one for beef. (Fish does seem to be a favourite for tamarind, but then it would be as it is often paired with lemon and lime}, Tamarind and chilli braised brisket and eggplants, on the left and Spicy tamarind salmon with bok choy and almonds on the right. Always so gorgeous looking. Makes you want to get out there and start cooking straightaway. Alas I am fasting today. But I won't throw out that tamarind and next time I'm in the supermarket I'll look for some tamarind paste.
"Then there is the tamarind. I thought tamarinds were made to eat, but that was probably not the idea." Mark Twain
He was obviously missing something. Although - it's also used for cleaning metal.