Sour Power | Food & Wine

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It’s sweet, intense and acerbic at the same time. It balances, softens and has the ability to heal. Such descriptors could sum up the complexities of love. But in this case, I’m describing tamarind, the versatile ingredient that brightens and contrasts everything it touches. Tamarind has the power to bring sharp relief to the sweetest desserts and infuse sweet-tart pleasure into spicy and savory dishes that will satisfy all diners. How can I love you, tamarind? Let me count the paths.

I’ve always been a bittersweet person. My mixed Indonesian heritage naturally placed tamarind as one of my most essential kitchen staples; I use the plump, pod-shaped fruit extensively in soups such as ikan kuah asam (Timorese fish and tamarind soup), to season peanut sauce or hot pepper condiment sambal, and in a series sour and spicy dishes known asam pedas with tamarind and chilli. It’s as common an ingredient as lime or lemon in an array of food cultures, but for many, tamarind serves an even deeper and more meaningful purpose.

Native to Africa, the tamarind tree has been cultivated for thousands of years in tropical regions of the world, particularly in Asia, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Growing up to 80 feet tall, it can live nearly 200 years yielding 385 pounds of fruit each year. The foliage of the tamarind tree provides a fern-like canopy of shade, its feathery leaves opening in the morning sun and closing at night. A member of the pea family (Fabaceae), the leguminous tree produces a hanging fruit wrapped inside a brittle, bulbous pod resembling a long, gnarled, light brown finger, 4 to 8 inches long. Within it is tamarind pulp, a sticky, fibrous mass with a date-like texture, encased in strings and veins that surround up to a dozen seeds, depending on where it is. cultivated.

No part of the evergreen tamarind is wasted; its versatility is part of its magic. Its beauty has been noted in literature for centuries (Edgar Allan Poe wrote of “summer dreams under the tamarind tree”), and many cultures revere it. The tamarind tree is sacred to the Bambara people of Mali, where it symbolizes multiplicity and renewal. In Myanmar it is believed by some to be the abode of the god of rain, and in Buddhism it represents faithfulness and patience. Tamarind wood is used for carpentry, its paste as a metal polish for ornaments in Buddhist temples. In India, tamarind leaves are made into tea to soothe sore throats and add a fresh, tangy flavor to curries and chutneys, while tamarind seeds are ground up for use as a souring agent in bread. In the Caribbean, whole tamarind seeds are roasted and eaten as a snack.

Although every part of the tree is used, it is the fruit – the tamarind pods – that have the greatest application in the kitchen, offering a wide and brilliant spectrum of flavors. The unripe fruit begins its life green and very sour, but its color gradually softens and darkens as it ripens. At its peak, the tamarind becomes almost entirely sweet, with only a hint of sourness. In Mexico and the Caribbean, it is common for the ripest fruits to be plucked from the tree and split open, the soft and seductive flesh eaten by children and adults. When the flesh of the sweet tamarind is combined with brown sugar and rolled, it becomes a Caribbean delicacy known as tamarind balls, sometimes seasoned with a little ground chili or rum. Between these two stages is the light reddish-brown ripe tamarind, which tastes intensely and pleasantly sour with a refreshing, acidic flavor reminiscent of caramel and dried stone fruit. This is the most common form of tamarind and the one I rely on in my cooking. A key ingredient in much South Asian and South Asian cuisine, ripe tamarind enhances savory dishes such as soups, curries, rice dishes, stews and stir-fries. This is one of the defining characteristics of the pad thai stir-fried noodle dish. . It is the ripe tamarind that gives Worcestershire sauce its distinct flavor. In West Africa, tamarind pods are simmered with rice and fish in Senegal’s national dish, thiéboudienne – the list goes on.

One of the gifts of tamarind is that it inspires home cooks to indulge in the art of seasoning. On its own, it tastes mostly sour, usually providing all the acidity a dish needs, but it will need to be delicately balanced against sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and umami. Tamarind plays a vital role in rounding out a dish without overpowering other flavors, and unlike other souring agents such as lime or lemon, it can be cooked for long periods of time without the flavor changing or settling. deteriorated. Used as a marinade for my Smoked and Glazed Tamarind Chicken (recipe p. 90), the high acid content of tamarind adds flavor while tenderizing.

The characteristic sharpness of ripe tamarind also comes into its own in sweets, offsetting the richness of caramel in my Tamarind Millionaire shortbread and adding complexity and fruity tartness to cakes and contrasting with candies. Combined with sugar and water, it becomes the refreshing and popular agua de tamarindo of Mexico, and with the addition of aromatics such as vanilla or ginger, it turns into the thirst-quenching tamarind juice of the Caribbean and the African countries stretching from Cairo to the Swahili coast. Combined with lemongrass and lime leaves, I love it as a base for a touch of tamarind on an Arnold Palmer or daiquiri (read more below).

Tamarind adds its entrancing bright and tart tones to cuisines around the world; it’s a magical ingredient that has the power to heal, quench your thirst, and make your mouth pucker up (in the best possible way). And like the best love stories, it’s rich in nuance and full of possibilities.

Tamarind fruits can be purchased as a cellophane-wrapped pulp in blocks; in jars or containers, sold as tamarind paste, puree or concentrate; or as fresh or dried tamarind pods. For the best tamarind flavor in the recipes that follow, we call for making tamarind water from tamarind pulp or pods.

1. Pods

Whole tamarind pods are classified according to the stage at which they were harvested. Sour tamarind, or unripe green tamarind, is the most tart and acidic. Ripe tamarind is brown, with a pleasantly strong sour taste. Sweet tamarind can be eaten straight from the pod. Get fresh pods from some major supermarkets, Asian and Indian grocers, and online.

2. Pulp

Dried tamarind pulp is sold in cellophane-wrapped blocks that contain the membrane and seeds of the tamarind pods. Once tamarind pulp comes into contact with air, it oxidizes, which is why these blocks are often medium to dark brown or even black in color.

3. Pasta

The pasta is seedless and moist and is made from the flesh of tamarind diluted with water, making it easy to incorporate into dishes. Good quality pasta should only contain tamarind, water and (sometimes) a preservative, but no artificial sweeteners or corn syrup. Our testers liked the Somboon brand tamarind paste, which comes in brick form.

4. Concentrates

Tamarind concentrates are thick and black with a consistency similar to that of molasses. The intense flavor of the tamarind concentrate gives pep to the tamarind chicken marinade and enlivens the caramel of the Tamarind Millionaire shortbread. Concentrates can also be diluted to a flavor similar to tamarind water, if desired, by mixing them with water. Look for the Tamicon brand.

5. Frozen

There is also unsweetened frozen tamarind, which may have a lower potency, so you may need to add more to taste. Thinner and less intensely flavored than other forms, just thaw and use as needed.

6. Powder

Finally, there is tamarind powder, made from dehydrated and ground tamarind. This pungent, highly concentrated form of tamarind can be used to flavor candies, drinks, and sauces when a recipe calls for it, but it cannot replace paste, concentrate, pods, or pulp.

How to make tamarind water

To release the acid power of fresh tamarind, the pods or pulp must first be processed into tamarind water. This tangy essence of tamarind is made by soaking fibrous tamarind flesh in boiling water and then straining it. An equal amount of high-quality tamarind concentrate, such as Tamicon, diluted with water can also be used in these recipes, but it will lack the bright, delicate quality of tamarind water from scratch.

How to make tamarind cocktails

Aromatic lemongrass, makrut lime leaves and spicy ginger combine with tangy fruity tamarind and rich, sweet coconut sugar to create a powerful and delicious tamarind cocktail base that can be used in all kinds of concoctions. Combined with rum and fresh lime juice, it becomes an energetic Tamarind Daiquiri; with the addition of tequila and a splash of club soda, it becomes a refreshing Tamarind Cooler. Or try it in combination with your favorite Arnold Palmer Tamarind Iced Tea. Lara Lee, who invented the Tamarind cocktail base, also likes to add a twist to Dark and Stormy cocktails and Mojitos. Do you want to prepare your cocktail mix in advance? Simply freeze the Tamarind Cocktail Base in ice cube trays and they will melt quickly when mixed with the remaining ingredients.

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