Tamarind forms [Indian Date; Tamarindo (spanish); Asam (malay), Asem Jawa (Indonesia); Imli, Amli, Chinch (India); Ma-kahm (Thai); Me (Viet); Puli (Tamil, Malay); Tamarindus indica]

Native to tropical Africa and Madagascar, the tamarind tree was known to the ancient Egyptians, and taken to India so long ago even botanists thought it was native there. From India it was introduced to Persia and the Arab world, thus Arabic "tamar hindi" (Indian date). It is now planted throughout the tropics and sub-tropics including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and southern Florida.

This hardwood tree can grow to around 70 feet but is in fact a legume, related to the common green bean and pea. The sweet/sour fruit pulp surrounding the seeds within the thin brittle shell are the part most used, but leaf shoots and flowers are also used. Tamarind fruit pulp is an important flavoring for food and beverages worldwide.and is an important ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, HP Sauce (UK and Canada) and Jamaican Pickapeppa sauce.

Tamarind pulp is widely sold in several forms, as illustrated in the photo above:

  • Whole Pods:   These are found piled in bins (mostly broken) in markets serving Hispanic communities, and carefully packed in windowed gift boxes for sale in Asian communities. This is the least convenient form as you must pick off the fragile shell before using. Otherwise prepare the same as for the block form but use a bit more to compensate for the seeds.
  • Pressed Block:   This is the most common form - pulp with the shell and most of the seeds removed. Thailand is the most common exporter but also India and other tropical countries.
  • Concentrate (Regular Paste):   Widely available and the most convenient form - you need only spoon it out of a jar. A tablespoon of this paste is roughly equivalent to 1-1/2 tablespoon of block after it is soaked and straining as described below. Thailand exports a number of brands, often labeled in incomprehensible Thai script and in Vietnamese as Nuöc Me Chua. They vary in quality (some have tiny bits of shell in them but this doesn't seem to bother most recipes). Some brands are "Product of U.S.A.", but read the label - some contain an uncertain amount of "High Fructose Corn Syrup".
  • Concentrate (Black):   This seems to comes only from India. The most common brand in the US is Tamicon, but there are others. It is highly concentrated and clearly has been cooked down, giving it a bit of a molasses flavor. You'd need to dilute it with 2 parts water to 1 part concentrate to get it about where the regular paste is, but the flavor will still be different.

Measures:   Most Indian recipes call for pulp from blocks. Measures are usually by volume, sometimes tablespoons, but more often "the size of a golf ball", "the size of a lime" or "the size of a Gooseberry. Caution: limes in India (and most of the world) are what we call "Key Limes" here in North America. They are much smaller than our common Persian / Tahitian limes, and Indian Gooseberries are much larger than what we call a gooseberry in North America.

  • Lime:   Key Lime size, about 1.4 inches diameter, 1-1/8 ounce (32 grams) and fill 1-1/2 Tablespoons (International tablespoons, not Australian).

  • Lemon:   Lemons like our big yellow ones are not native to India, where the words "lemon" and "lime" are used interchangeably. What botanical lemons they do have are mostly small and green. I have not been able to find an exact size, but lets go with around 1-1/2 inches, 1-1/3 ounces (38 grams) and 2 Tablespoons.

  • Gooseberry:   Indian gooseberries get up to about 2 inches diameter, but average about 1-5/8 inches diameter, which would be 1-3/4 ounces (50gms), which would be just over 2-3/4 Tablespoons.

  • Golf Ball:   This size would be 1.7 inches diameter, weigh 2 ounces (57 grams) and fill 3 Tablespoons.

Using Block Form

Is block better than concentrate? Yes, noticeably more tart and flavorful, nearly identical to fresh pods but easier to use because you don't have to pick off the shell and deal with the seeds. The result is much thinner than concentrate, but remarkably strong.

  1. Lime size:   Take 1 ounce (30 grams, 1-1/2 Tablespoon), chop coarsely and place in a 1 cup measuring cup. Fill with almost boiling water to 2/3 cup. Let soak for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. It is ready when all the sticky black paste is dissolved leaving the white seed surround and fibers. Golf Ball size:   Take 1-7/8 ounces (55 grams 2-7/8 Tablespoons) and do as above but fill to a full 1 cup.
  2. Strain, preferably through a nylon strainer due to the acidity, pushing the pulp around and pressing with a wooden spoon. Be sure to scrape the outside of the strainer as much paste will adhere there.
  3. Lime size will yield about 1/2 cup - the equivalent to about 5 tablespoons of regular concentrate. Golf ball size will yield about 3/4 cup, equivalent to about 7-1/2 tablespoons of concentrate.
  4. Refrigerate what you don't use right away - it'll keep a week or so.

Other Uses

Stems ofLeaves

Leaves:   In India and Africa, tender leaf shoots are used as greens and in soup. They can be purchased in jars packed in brine in some markets serving Asian communities. These have a very light sweet-sour taste. The hard stems must be removed, which is a hassle because they are in little pieces, and the leaves don't strip off easily - not really worthwhile in my opinion. The stems in the photo carried very thin leaves 0.3 inches wide and 0.7 inch long. Tamarind leaf, water, salt, citric acid, sodium benzoate (preservative) sodium metabisulfate (color preservative).

Seeds currently have little use but a process is being developed to use them to produce a substance similar to, but said to be superior to, fruit pectin for making jams and jellies.

Flowers:   In India, flowers are used in salads and are made into a pickle in southwest India.

Pods:   Immature pods are used in India to flavor rice. In the Bahamas green pods are roasted in ashes until they burst, then are dipped in the ashes and eaten. Immature pods are not available in North America except in frozen form (find them in Philippine markets). The trees are seldom planted in North America and are unlikely to fruit except at the southern tip of Florida.

bowl Non Culinary:   In Indonesia, tamarind pulp is rubbed into pottery before firing to produce a unique mottled reddish brown glaze.

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