Tamarind Paste Is About To Elevate Your Next Curry

tamarind
What Actually Is Tamarind?Vicky Chandler

Even if you’ve never cooked with tamarind, you’ll probably have it hiding in your kitchen already - it’s found in Western cuisine as an ingredient in both HP sauce and Worcester sauce, sending in its flamboyant tang to dance with all that marvellous umami. But across the rest of the world (and by no means limited to the tropical regions in which it grows) tamarind is used in drinks, sauces, marinades and curries to boost the acidity of a dish while adding a complex fruity flavour. Tamarind’s signature acidity comes from a high level of tartaric acid, but it also boasts a unique caramel-y stickiness which makes it a wonderful ingredient in its own right, especially in chutneys. But what actually is tamarind? How can you use it in your cooking at home?

What is tamarind?

The fruiting body of the tamarind tree is a long-ish seed-pod, containing between 6-10 thumb-sized seeds. The sticky brown pulp which surrounds these seeds is what we refer to as tamarind, and the sweetness of the pulp, like lots of fruit, is dependent on its ripeness. Many South Asian shops will stock either the whole ripened seed pods, or condensed bricks of the tacky, date-like flesh - some will possibly carry tins or jars of tamarind paste concentrate too.

If you’re after a deliciously tart snack, do buy a package of the seed pods and greedily suck the pulp off them while you watch your favourite Netflix show - but if you’re after using it in your cooking, you're better off buying the tamarind brick than either the pods or the pastes; the former are too fiddly to cook with in large quantities and the latter can often have sugar or artificial ingredients added to them which deviate away from tamarind’s natural fruitiness.

low angle view of tamarind on tree
Yutthana Chumkhot / EyeEm - Getty Images

How do you use tamarind?

Tamarind in its pressed, brick-like format needs some preparation before you can use it in your cooking: you’ll need to tear off however much of it you want, soak it in boiling water to soften and then push it through a sieve to get rid of any stringy fibres. But you’ll be richly rewarded for doing this - the fresh, tangy sweetness from the pressed tamarind will beat a jar of sugary paste any day. And the block, when stored in a cool, dark place in an airtight container will last indefinitely, so what’s not to love? Once you’ve got your paste sorted, then, here are some ideas from around the world to start you off on your tamarind journey.

Add it into your coconut-based seafood curries

Tamarind, fresh coconut, ginger, garlic and chilli harmonise together in south Indian cuisine to create a rich, fragrant and sweat-inducing flavour profile, which is said to help cool you down in the hot temperatures. Of course, wherever you are, the tamarind elevates all those amazing ingredients and adds a level of background sweetness too, supporting the naturally delicate flavour of seafood - prawns are a match made in heaven for this sort of sauce.

Make the best homemade Pad Thai

Tamarind is a key ingredient in authentic Pad Thai, but people often use rice vinegar or lime juice as a replacement - but get in there with some softened tamarind and you’ll never look back.

thai food
Ethan Calabrese

Make a refreshing ginger and tamarind drink

Steep fresh ginger in hot water and add sugar to make a ginger syrup, then mix in tamarind and top with soda water for a delicious sweet and sour drink on a hot summer’s day.

Make a tamarind chutney to serve with your curries

Ubiquitous across South India, tamarind chutney - also known as Imli chutney - is served alongside samosas and other deep fried snacks, as well as next to curries and with papadums. This is a really easy recipe from Dassana Amit - you soak a couple of tablespoons of tamarind overnight and then add the strained puree to a pan of tempered spices and heat with jaggery or a molasses-rich cane sugar before cooling and serving.