A beginner's guide to tamarind, also known in SouthEast Asia as assam jawa, including how to cook and store it + 35 easy international tamarind recipes
What is tamarind?
Growing up in Singapore, we had so many tamarind recipes so I was rather surprised to learn that this fruit actually a legume that originates from Africa! (Alternative names for tamarind include tamarindo, Indian date and assam jawa.) Unfortunately, none of my fellow bloggers contributed an African tamarind recipe, but if you know ways to cook tamarind African-style, I'd love to hear!
Besides being a staple ingredient in many South East Asian recipes- for example, tamarind is a key ingredient in famous dishes such as pad Thai- it is also found in Indian food and Mexican cuisine. This list of tamarind recipes are mainly not vegan, so if you're on a plant-based diet, click here for vegan tamarind recipes.
I always say Greedygirlgourmet is about bold flavours and tamarind is a classic example of the type of flavour I love: it's very strong and a little of the sour pulp goes a long way! The flavor is sweet, tangy yet tart, with riper fruits being less sour, and often needs a bit of brown sugar to round up the taste beautifully.
It's also an amazingly useful plant: the fruits - and seeds!- are edible, the leaves used in herbal remedies (for sore throats) and the wood to make furniture. The sour note comes from the tartaric acid in the tamarind- the more unripe a tamarind is, the more sour it will be!
This tropical fruit has a lot of Vitamin C. However, do note that most tamarind recipes which use unripe tamarind will also call for ample sugar to round up the taste, which isn't the best for one's health or weight!
How to use
Tamarind fruit can be found in its:
- unripe green form, although it's quite hard to find- there's no need to de-seed, just chop it up and add to tamarind chutney or pickles
- ripe (brown) form- it has a hard shell which you break open, remove the seeds and use the pulp. (More below on how to use the pulp to make homemade tamarind paste)
- processed into a block of tamarind pulp
- paste form- this is the easiest way to use tamarind- most Singaporean tamarind recipes use tamarind paste. The pulp has already been removed from the fruits, de-seeded and pressed into blocks. Usually, Singaporeans add water to this paste, then squeeze it through a cheesecloth to get assam water (tamarind juice).
- powder form (dehydrated tamarind)
Note: ripe brown tamarind and tamarind paste have long shelf lives when refrigerated
One of the simplest tamarind sauce recipes would be to mix tamarind paste with fish sauce, some sugar or maple syrup, fresh red chillies and red onions (sliced) and maybe a tinge of lime juice to make a spicy Asian salad dressing with a tangy flavor.
- As they're both sour, Western recipes sometimes point to lemon juice as a tamarind alternative- they both have a tart flavor after all.
- Others say to use Worcestershire sauce, since it includes tamarind.
- However, as they're not perfect substitutes, I'd say it depends on what you're making- I'm not sure anyone who's eaten authentic Pad Thai would find it acceptable cooked with lemon instead of tamarind!
How to make tamarind paste
My 1st time encountering fresh tamarind was actually in London! In Singapore, tamarind concentrate or paste is widely available in regular supermarkets so we don't have to deal with the sticky pulp in the tamarind pods ourselves. I do enjoy making food from scratch though, so it was fun to make homemade tamarind paste from the fruit.
After opening the fruit, remove as much of the seeds' membranes inside as possible, then soak the remaining pulp in boiling water. Once it is soft (about 15 minutes), sieve the pulp to filter any of the leftover skin, seeds and what-not that you may have missed- you will need to push down hard on the sieve. Toss the part left it in sieve, and re-add the water in which the tamarind soaked back to the strained- out mass. You can add more or less water depending on whether your tamarind recipe calls for tamarind paste or water.
How to store
Homemade tamarind water or paste should be refrigerated or frozen, if you don't need to use it so soon. The more watery your paste it, the shorter the time it can last in the fridge. Thanks to the high acid content, homemade sour tamarind paste can last for up to a few months in the fridge.
Shop bought tamarind paste can be stored in the pantry till opened (in its unopened state, it has a long shelf life), after which it should be popped into the chiller to help it last longer.
Where to buy
In Asia, tamarind is commonly available in grocery stores but in the West, you may need to check out the local Asian grocery stores or order it online.
This sour fruit has a lot of Vitamin C and anti-oxidants. Some people believe it helps with weight loss, to protect the heart and live as well as has anti-diabetic properties. Hoever, there are side effects if you consume too much. For health advice, please consult a qualified medical professional.
Rice & Noodles
Tamarind is wonderfully versatile- besides the spicy Thai fried rice shown above, it's also used in Indian cuisine to make tamarind rice which, despite using some of the same main ingredients, tastes very different!
Don't forget to make some homemade pork scratchings to sprinkle on top of the mee siam for crunch- it's non traditional but a delicious addition! If you prefer your noodles stir-fried, there's also a dry stir-fried version:
Did you know that tamarind is a great meat tenderiser (thanks to its acidity)? It works particularly well with thick slabs of beef and pork. Don't marinate for too long though or the acid in the tamarind will affect the meat's texture.
A favourite Singaporean dish is assam fish, in which fish is cooked with tamarind and sugar. Although not as common, I like to add coconut milk to make an assam fish curry from time-to-time.
Chutneys & Pickles
An easy recipe is to boil the pulp of this tropical fruit, strain then add sugar- voila, tamarind tea! (I also have other Asian drinks recipes here if you're looking for a beverage)
Before you go, you may be interested in these recipes for herbs-you-can-grow recipes: