Walk into almost any taqueria and you can get agua de tamarindo, a refreshingly tangy Mexican drink made from tamarind fruit. But tamarind is not just Mexican, and tamarindo is not just a drink.
Wonderfully zingy, tart and piquant, with an intriguing herbal-floral note, the fruit's flavor shows up in a wide-reaching array of cuisines - Southeast Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Eastern and Northern African, and Caribbean. You find it in a sauce spooned over deep-fried fish in Thailand or with spicy eggplant in India or in a sour soup in Vietnam.
A tamarind-laced, sweet-sour broth might punctuate a rich, meaty Iraqi stew. And, yes, you also find it in zippy drinks from Egypt to Jamaica and throughout Latin America.
Claudia Roden makes stunning use of it in her recipe for ingriyi, an Iraqi lamb, eggplant and tomato stew from her cookbook titled The Book of Jewish Food. The meat and vegetables are cooked separately and drizzled with a sauce of tamarind and meat broth before baking. Each bite is a collage of tender lamb, silky eggplant and jammy tomato, brightened by deliciously tamarind-fruity juices.
Poopa Dweck includes no fewer than nine recipes involving tamarind in her book Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews. Aleppian Jews, she writes, flavor many dishes with tamarind, "a subtler souring agent than lemon, tangier than pomegranate syrup," with a "deeper flavor than tomato." It shows up in meatball dishes, mincemeat pies and bulgur salad.
Popular across Southeast Asia are tamarind-spiked sour soups. In Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, Andrea Nguyen offers one that gains substance from lightly poached catfish; okra lends body; and barely cooked bean sprouts add crunch.
You might think the best way to get tamarind flavor is to use the pods themselves. Not so. Long, brittle pods of mature tamarind encase a dark, sticky fruit that's veined with thick fibers and studded with seeds. You can buy the pods in Mexican markets, but shelling them and removing the fibers and seeds is messy and difficult. Then there's young tamarind - which might sound delicate and tender, but its pale-green flesh is lip-puckeringly acidic. It's used in some Thai dishes, but it is not as common an ingredient as the ripe fruit.
The most convenient and effective way to cook with tamarind is to make what's known as "tamarind liquid." (In their books, Dweck and Nguyen include sections on how to make it.) You make the liquid using tamarind paste or pulp, which is the most widely available form of tamarind, sold at Asian and Indian markets. It comes in the form of a brick of seedless pulp, often labeled simply "tamarind."
Wrapped in cellophane, the blocks keep indefinitely without refrigeration. Simmer the pulp in water, then let it sit for a while before passing it through a sieve to eliminate all the fiber. Freeze it in ice-cube trays for future use, or use it right away.
Pre-processed tamarind pulp is a bit easier to manage, but it's a challenge to find. One reliable Thai product is labeled "Pure Fresh Tamarind (Concentrate)" and, despite its name, can be used straight out of the jar without dilution. It's comparable to the soaked-and-sieved pulp. But beware of a dark, viscous fluid labeled "Tamarind concentrate" found in Indian stores. It tastes flat and metallic, with none of the fruity aroma of the other types of tamarind.
Once you have a stash of tamarind liquid, you might add it to anything that needs a tart touch. It makes a great salad dressing with nut or olive oil and can substitute for lemon juice or vinegar in a marinade. I've even tried it in lemon bars (instead of lemon juice), with much success.
Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson knows exactly how to work the flavor. In his African-inspired The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, he uses it to heighten a mustardy sauce for salmon kebabs. The tamarind zips through the rich, charred salmon to wonderful effect.
Who knew that your agua de tamarindo would be the beginning of a trip around the world?
Cicely Wedgeworth writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Salmon Skewers With Tamarind Sauce
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1/2 cup peanut oil
2 pounds salmon fillet, cut into 2-inch cubes
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 cup white-wine vinegar
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons tamarind liquid or canned fresh tamarind concentrate
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pour the peanut oil into a medium bowl. Add the salmon and turn to coat. Set fish aside for 30 minutes.
Soak 16 bamboo skewers in water for at least 30 minutes. Prepare a medium-hot grill fire.
While the salmon is marinating in the peanut oil, heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and saute until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the curry powder, vinegar, red wine, cornstarch, tamarind and sugar. Bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly. Remove the sauce from the heat and let it cool slightly.
Transfer the sauce to a blender and puree until smooth; this makes 2 cups. Place 1 cup in a small serving bowl and set aside. Reserve the remaining sauce for basting the salmon.
Sprinkle the salmon with the salt and thread it onto skewers. Arrange the skewers on the grill and cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or just until cooked through, brushing frequently with the tamarind sauce.
Serve with the bowl of reserved sauce.
Adapted from "The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa," by Marcus Samuelsson
Per serving (based on 8 servings): 334 calories, 23 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 23 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 67 milligrams cholesterol, 214 milligrams sodium