Recently I enjoyed a Southeast Asian-inspired vegan tasting menu by Chef Alok Vasanth and team at The Tasting Shed in Kumeu. One of a series of snacks we were served was a tamarind ‘rice wash’ soup: a thin broth, it was packed with flavour. Vasanth had looked to the Philippines, where sinigang soup is soured with tamarind, and features the starchy water from the second rinsing of rice. “This means you’re not wasting the starchy water, which contains valuable nutrients, and you’re also not wasting the water, which is a precious resource”, explains Vasanth, who eschewed meat or other vegetables for his version, instead treating the tamarind as both the main ingredient and souring agent.
The flesh from tamarind pods is used by cooks throughout Southeast and South Asia, some parts of the Middle East and Central America, to add sourness. Vasanth notes that its ability to store well is a bonus, especially in tropical climates–lime juice wouldn’t last a day without going fizzy, whereas tamarind preserves well. (On that note Vasanth suggests trying tamarind in place of citrus in a vinaigrette). As well as tartness, tamarind adds other flavour dimensions to a dish. “Darker notes of caramel”, explains Vasanth, “Which helps it stand up to strong flavours like fermented fish or shrimp, and spices”.
To that end, tamarind is often paired with seafood–one famous example being Penang’s assam laksa, where tamarind both bolsters and balances a generous amount of flaked oily fish, and a spoonful of potent shrimp paste. My mother-in-law Eman makes an Iraqi-style charcoal-barbecued mackerel flavoured with a sweet-sour tamarind glaze. Its caramelly sweetness can be played up: a dish of tamarind prawns I once ate by the beach on the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand saw palm sugar, fish sauce, shallots and tamarind combined to make a fantastic sweet and sour sauce which enhanced the natural sweetness of the fat, juicy prawns.
Whereas citrus needs to be added at the very end of cooking (or heat will destroy its flavour and sour-factor), tamarind is best added, recommends Vasanth, “Three quarters of the way through cooking”.
There are options when selecting tamarind to cook with. Buy the pulp, which comes in a dark brown, compressed block, and needs to be soaked then strained to remove the seeds and create a kind of paste to cook with, or in plastic tubs you’ll find ready-strained pulp, or a more concentrated paste. Asian and Indian grocers’ boast a selection of candied tamarind products–go forth and explore.