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 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).
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.
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.
Susan developed a passion for flavorful food as a child. Under her mother's wing, she learned to prepare everyday Kerala dishes. The hypnotic rhythms of the kitchen (mincing, chopping, mixing) always drew her back to its belly. As a college student, she made simple comfort foods like spaghetti riddled with garlic and tacos spiked with cilantro.
In her twenties, Susan moved to Tokyo in search of adventure where she embraced Japanese culinary traditions. There she learned to value individual ingredients and tapped into the power of plating.
Once back in the U.S., Susan earned a Masters Degree in Public Policy. Her passion for the culinary arts led her to Kendall College in 2005 where she trained as a chef. After a foray in the food industry, she started Cardamom Kitchen. Her mission is to promote home cooking and nutrition in the kitchen and on the policy front. Susan has led cooking classes at Whole Foods, Gilda's Club, the City of Chicago's World Kitchen, Common Threads, farmer's markets and private classes for children and adults. Using her policy expertise, she advocates for changes to the food system that promote wellness and address hunger.