What’s that food?

This month’s WTF is an essential ingredient in both Worcestershire sauce and HP sauce—condiments that find places of honour on many chefs’ and home cooks’ shelves. Tamarind is a fruit that offers a sour yet sweetly acidic flavour, hence its use in these sauces.

Tamarind is an evergreen tree native to tropical Africa but is widely cultivated in other tropical and subtropical regions for its edible fruit. Especially popular in the Indian subcontinent, Central America, and Mexico, it is a common ingredient in the cuisine of those regions. The tree, which can grow to 24 metres tall, is also grown as an ornamental and its wood is used in carpentry. A mature tree is capable of producing up to 175 kgs (386 lbs) of fruit yearly.

Natural tamarind is rather ugly
Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

The tamarind fruit grows as a plump legume with a hard brown shell which contains one to 12 large seeds embedded in a soft brownish pulp. The pulp is harvested from these pods and is a brown or reddish brown flesh. The fruit is best described as sweet and sour in taste, and is high in tartaric acid, sugar, B vitamins, protein, and—unusual for a fruit—calcium. Like many fruit, if unripened it is more sour, but the harder green pulp of a young fruit is often used as a component of savory dishes. It can also be used as a pickling agent.

Tamarind paste is used as a flavoring for chutneys, curries, and in certain varieties of Masala Chai tea. Across the Middle East, from the Levant to Iran, tamarind is used in savory dishes, notably meat-based stews, and often combined with dried fruits to achieve a sweet-sour tang. In the Philippines, the whole fruit is used as an ingredient in the traditional dish called sinigang to add a unique sour taste, replacing vinegar. Indonesia also has a similarly sour, tamarind-based soup dish called sayur asem.

In non-culinary uses, the kernel of tamarind seeds can be powdered and used as sizing material for textile and jute processing, and in the manufacture of industrial gums and adhesives. Over-ripe tamarind pulp is used in homes and temples, especially in Buddhist Asian countries, to polish brass shrine statues and lamps, as well as copper, brass, and bronze utensils. It’s the fruit’s tartaric acid content (8 to 18%) that can remove the green coat of copper carbonate.

Tamarind is sold in blocks. This is the dark brown flesh of ripe tamarind removed from the pods, compressed, and often sold in Thai and Southeast Asian markets. Labeled as “wet tamarind” or simply “tamarind,” many brands already have the fibrous strings and most of the seeds removed. Squeeze the package to feel its softness; a softer package generally is fresher, and easier to work with. If unopened, it can be stored indefinitely in a cool, dark place. After opening, store it in the refrigerator for up to three months.

Tamarind seeds and the strained juice
Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

To prepare, simply cut off the amount you want to use with a knife. Combine the pulp with lukewarm water (roughly ¹/₃ pulp to ²/₃ water). Soak for at least 10 minutes and then strain the compressed tamarind to get a sauce to use. If you want a very intense concentrate, soak the pulp, discard the soaking water and then push the softened pulp through a sieve. You can use it as an alternative to lemon or lime juice in many dishes.

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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