The Spice: Pod bless tamarind | The Indian SCENE

The Spice: Pod bless tamarind

In sauces, savory dishes, drinks and desserts, tamarind goes with just about everything.

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There are the ingredients that feel steadfast and pleasantly one-dimensional, but the more exciting ones might be the kind that are a bit more cryptic, able to sneak into any dish and feel perfectly natural. In that latter category is where I’d put tamarind, which I’ve shoveled into my mouth via South Indian tamarind rice, but also guzzled in sugary Mexican sodas.

Tamarind is the fruit pod of a tree found in Asia and northern Africa. It’s available in four different forms, writes food writer Nik Sharma in his cookbook Season: “The whole fruit in the pods; a wet, seedless cake of pulp, which some producers call ‘paste’; a dried block of pulp with seeds; and a liquid concentrate with a dark, molasseslike color and texture.”

The flavor is often described as sour-sweet, akin to a glass of lemonade or an earthy sour candy. In fact, in South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, tamarind pulp concentrate acts much like lemon juice does in Western cuisines. It can be used to season already flavorful foods, such as chutneys, curry dishes or pickled fish. In India, the fruit’s leaves can be used to spice up lentils and dals; the fruit works especially well in curries and condiments, too.

But in Mexican cuisines, you’ll find tamarind used in sweetened drinks and desserts. The more time the fruit is given to age, the sweeter it gets, explaining those regional differences.

Tamarind can be eaten straight off the tree, and it’s quite easy to prepare in its pod form. First, gently crack and peel away the hard brown shell, where you’ll find a dark brown pulp and stringy, fibrous veins. Pull those away, and from there, it’s ready to eat. (Though do be careful to avoid seeds.) The pods can be found in the produce section of Asian and Latin markets, or they may be sold as “tamarindo” or “Indian date” in a larger supermarket. Unpeeled pods can be stored at room temperature for up to three months.

Tamarind is also sold in paste, concentrate and block forms. “Avoid the liquid concentrate,” Sharma writes. The taste is a little off. But the seedless blocks are an easy option; they can be softened in hot water before being extracted and strained.

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