A sweet-sour flavour enhancer native to Asia
Image: Regula Ysewijn
“Tamarind is a fruit, not a spice,” says Magali owner of Spice Mountain, one of the most exotic, varied and colourful stalls in the Market. “You find it all over India and many parts of Asia, where huge tamarind trees dripping with long, slightly knobbly brown fruit in their hard cases, are a familiar part of the landscape.” Inside the casing you’ll find large stones surrounded by soft flesh, which is the part of the tamarind you eat.
Tamarind has a lovely flavour with a really interesting profile. “It’s sweet, but with quite a sharp, tangy edge. Everything hits you all at once,” she continues. “They are very sharp if you pick them early and get sweeter as they get older, but even when they are very ripe and at their sweetest they still retain that edge. On the stall we have lots of different spices which have that sweet-sour combination, but nothing can really replicate that distinct tamarind flavour.”
Our spice expert says that while it can and often is eaten straight from the tree, the main use for tamarind throughout the region is as an ingredient. It is a wonderful flavour-enhancer. “Something it is commonly used for is curries. A good curry has to have a mix of sweet, sour and salty, and tamarind is perfect for adding those notes,” Magali advises. “You will also find it’s used a lot in stews, or any type of dish where sauce is an integral part of the dish.”
Here in Europe, Magali has started to see tamarind more often, in products like date chutney—a wonderful combination of flavours that goes very beautifully together—but it is an ingredient that she thinks should be in more British kitchens, especially those of Borough Market’s adventurous customers.
“If you are making your own Indian pickle tamarind works excellently, adding an extra layer of flavour. I use it a lot in my cooking—it is always in my cupboard at home. For me it is one of the base curry ingredients,” she continues. “Tamarind works beautifully with fish curry in particular. In many parts of India and Sri Lanka, they would not dream of making a fish curry without it.”
Chef Meera Sodha makes use of tamarind in her salmon pollichattu, sweet sticky parcels of fish, and our resident Indian cuisine expert Roopa Gulati makes a beautiful tamarind prawns with lime rice dish—both of which are definitely worth a try.
Southern Indian sambar
If you are looking for a vegetarian dish, it also works really well with beans and pulses, as suggested by regular blogger, demo chef and UN pulse ambassador Jenny Chandler, in her recipe for southern Indian sambar.
“The main thing to remember is that the flavour can be quite intense,” warns Magali, “so a little goes a long way. Start by putting in a small amount and build it up, until you find the level you are happy with. I promise it will set your curries apart.”
Magali sells tamarind in two forms: a paste, which is made by taking away the flesh from the fruit and processing it—entirely naturally—into a paste form, and in a soft block, whereby the flesh has been compressed. The paste comes ready to use; with the block, cut off a small piece and dissolve it in water as and when you need it.
“Another popular other way of using tamarind is as a drink, which many Asian families make at home,” says Magali. “The process is much the same as making a lemonade, but with tamarind as the base fruit mixed with sugar and water. Most families have their own special recipe. I remember drinking this as a child in Mauritius,” she recalls. “It is very refreshing in hot weather.”