Tamarind paste is essential to making an authentic pad thai, as well as other Thai and Southeast Asian dishes. Tamarind is also a key ingredient in India, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East.
In this quick article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about this underrated flavor agent!
What Is Tamarind?
Tamarind is a tree native to the rainforests of Africa. It produces brown pods that contain an edible pulp with the sourness of a lime and the sweetness of a prune. The pods look almost like smooth, long brown peanuts. Each section contains a seed surrounded by fruit pulp.
The overall flavor is notably sour, though its sourness differs from that of lemons, limes, and other citrus fruits. Cooks from cuisines around the world prize this unique flavor.
How to Use It
Tamarind has many culinary uses, including making chutneys in India, pickled ingredients in the Middle East, and sodas and beverages in Latin America. It’s also a key flavor agent in an ingredient most Americans know well––Worcestershire sauce!
We love it in Kaitlin’s tamarind iced tea:
In Southeast Asian cooking, it also adds a sweet and sour flavor to soups and noodle dishes like pad thai.
If using fresh tamarind fruit, it must be peeled and then boiled or soaked in warm water to soften the pulp. The tamarind is then mashed and pressed through a strainer, and the resulting pulp and juice is then added to soups, stews, sauces, etc.
Tamarind pulp, or dried tamarind, can serve as a substitute for the fresh pulp. The dried stuff comes in blocks (usually ½ pound – 1 pound, or about 250-500g). You would just break the block into smaller pieces and then soak them in hot water. Then you can strain the mixture and add it to various dishes.
Tamarind paste or concentrate, which is what we find most readily available in Asian grocery stores in our area, is ready to use and sold in jars.
It’s the most convenient option for adding tamarind flavor to your cooking, though its flavor isn’t quite as strong or pure as fresh juice or even the soaked and strained dried pulp.
The flavor of tamarind is quite strong and sour, so a little goes a long way. Its sour flavor can be counterbalanced with sweet, salty, and savory flavors, especially in Thai cuisine, where the interplay of these different flavors are key!
Buying & Storing
You can find tamarind at various kinds of ethnic markets, from well-stocked Asian markets to Indian and Latin markets.
If it’s available fresh at your local Asian or Latin grocery store, you can buy that and make your own paste at home.
Simply peel the outer shells of the pods off, remove any of the veiny fibers surrounding the seeds and pulp and then soak the tamarind in hot water for about an hour.
Then put the tamarind in a fine meshed strainer sitting in the soaking liquid, and mash through the strainer until all that’s left in the strainer is the hard seeds.
Combine the pulp with the liquid in the bowl to form a thin paste (if you’d like the paste to be thicker, use less water for soaking).
Otherwise, you can buy ready-to-use paste in jars, either in stores or online. Refrigerate after opening and always use a clean utensil when handling it. As long as you store it in an airtight container and do not contaminate it, it can last in the refrigerator for about a year.
Substitutions for Tamarind
Tamarind has a truly unique flavor that’s difficult to substitute for. However, if necessary, you can substitute 2 parts lime juice mixed with 1 park dark brown sugar, or try equal parts pomegranate molasses and lime juice.
Our Favorite Dishes That Use This Ingredient:
If you have further questions, let us know in the comments. We try to answer every single one!
How to Make Tamarind Paste from Fresh Tamarind
- fresh tamarind pods
- hot water
- Peel the outer shells of the pods off, remove any of the veiny fibers surrounding the seeds and pulp and then soak the tamarind in hot water for about an hour.
- Then put the tamarind in a fine meshed strainer sitting in the soaking liquid, and mash the tamarind through the strainer until all that’s left in the strainer is the hard seeds.
- Combine the pulp with the liquid in the bowl to form a thin tamarind paste (if you’d like the paste to be thicker, use less water for soaking).