Tamarind is a sticky, sour-tasting fruit that grows in large brown pods on the tamarind tree, a common fruit tree that grows all over Asia and also in Mexico (see photo of pods below). The fruit is removed from the pods and must be separated from the seeds in order to use it. The taste of tamarind fruit is very sour, so whatever recipe you're making will need sugar or some kind of sweetener. The texture of tamarind is very sticky and paste-like, and the color of tamarind fruit is dark brown.
What is Tamarind Paste and Where Can I Buy It?
Tamarind paste is just the fruit (separated from the pod and seeds) of the tamarind tree made into a ready-to-use cooking paste. It comes in a jar or plastic tub-like container and one bottle is likely all you will need for a very long time, as the paste is usually quite strong and condensed. Tamarind paste can be found in some Chinese/Asian food stores, but you might have more luck buying tamarind paste in Indian food stores. It can also be purchased online (see Buy Tamarind Paste).
How to Cook with Tamarind Paste + Recipes!
Tamarind paste is easy to use with the right recipe (see below for some good Thai recipes). Just scoop it out of the bottle and add straight to your recipe.
Tamarind paste is usually cooked in with other ingredients, but can also be mixed into uncooked dips and chutneys. The thickness and strength of tamarind paste vary widely depending on which brand you use. If it's a runny paste, you will need to add more in order to achieve the right flavor. Taste-test your recipe to achieve the right sweet-sour balance, adding more paste or more sweetener until you're happy with it.
How to Make Your Own Tamarind Paste at Home
Dried tamarind pods can be purchased in clear packages at Asian/Chinese food stores. The pods must be opened and the fruit removed. Place fruit in a saucepan with only a little bit of water (3 to 4 Tbsp. water to 1/4 cup fruit) and simmer 10 to 15 minutes to soften. Remove from heat and use the back of a spoon or a potato masher to gently mash the fruit against the bottom/sides of the pan. Then strain to get a brown liquid. Press the fruit through the strainer to get as much pulp as possible into the liquid while straining out the seeds. Your tamarind paste is now ready to use. Note that homemade pastes tend not to be as strong-tasting as the bottled variety, so you may need to add more to your recipe to achieve the same flavor.
Are There Any Substitutions for Tamarind Paste?
Yes, there are two good substitutes.
Vinegar is a common tamarind substitute and works well in dishes like Pad Thai Chicken. If your recipe calls for 1 tbsp. tamarind, simply substitute with 1 tbsp. vinegar. The second substitute is fresh lime juice. Substitute 2 tbsp. lime juice for every 1 tbsp. tamarind paste. Both substitutes work best when the amount of tamarind paste is 2 tbsp. or less. Neither substitute works well if the recipe you wish to make is based on tamarind as the number one flavor ingredient (as in this Thai Tamarind Fish); in that case, you will need to hunt down some tamarind paste.
There is so much you can do with tamarind, and you'll find the flavor very rich and unique-tasting. Tamarind is also a healthy ingredient to cook with. Enjoy!