Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Cooking with Tamarind

Grid Thekkady

The last time I was in India, my Aunt Iysha, cousin Indu, and I traveled to the Western Ghats, a mountainous region on the west coast of Kerala, in search of cardamom. I had eaten and cooked with the spice plenty of times, but I had never seen it growing. My grandfathers on both sides had managed cardamom estates. They passed away before I was born, and I hoped to envision the land they had once owned.

On the second day of our excursion, we toured a spice garden in Kumily with vanilla climbing skyward, fine-leafed papyrus, and rose-colored coffee beans (all pictured above). But it was the sprawling tamarind that enthralled me. The tree’s feathery foliage formed the perfect canopy for a  open air nap. Tubby pods dangled from it’s branches. I knew that the fruit hidden inside  offered a mouth-puckering bite.   

Tamarind tree

Purchasing Tamarind

Tamarind is an essential souring agent in Indian cuisine. It brings tang to tamarind chutney, the dark, slightly sweet sauce that often accompanies samosa. In Kerala, it is used to round out the complex flavors of sambar (vegetable stew) and rasam (vegetarian broth).

Visit an Indian grocery store, and you’ll likely find tamarind sold in several forms. The whole dried pods have brown skin and look like jumbo beans. They’re often stocked in the produce section. Compressed tamarind, which contains the pulp and seeds, is sold in blocks. I prefer to use tamarind paste or concentrate. It has the most intense flavor.

Tamarind paste_edited-1

Cooking with Tamarind

Tamarind paste has a thick, tacky consistency. It should be diluted with water or another liquid before being combined with other ingredients. When cooking sambar, I like to thin it with liquid from the dish, as shown below. 

Diluting tamarind paste
Diluting tamarind paste2
Diluting tamarind paste3
Diluted tamarind paste