What is tamarind, and how do I eat it?

Reader curious about uses of sweet-sour fruit pod

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Tamarind pods

Tamarind pods (Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune)

Q: I feel ignorant about tamarind. There are two tamarind things I love: the tamarind sauce I've had in Indian restaurants, and the Jarritos brand tamarind-flavored soda made in Mexico. What else can you tell me about where the ingredient comes from and how else it's used, and if it's used always in a sweet, rather than savory application?

--Timothy Garrison, Chicago

A: Tamarind does have savory uses, the most common of which may be as an ingredient and flavor component in Worcestershire sauce.

Tamarind is the fruit pod of a tree native to Asia and northern Africa, according to "The New Food Lover's Companion," which describes tamarind's "sour-sweet" flavor as being akin to lemons, apricots and dates.

"Tamarind pulp concentrate is popular as a flavoring in East Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines much like lemon juice is in Western cultures,'' the Companion adds. "It's used to season full-flavored foods such as chutneys, curry dishes and pickled fish. Additionally, tamarind is used to make a sweet syrup flavoring soft drinks."

Robin Mather, writing about tamarind in a 2007 story for the Chicago Tribune, noted the fruit is used in India, Africa, Mexico, the Philippines, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. Below, I've attached a recipe for stir-fried sambal shrimp from a 2011 story I wrote about Malaysian cuisine. It calls for tamarind concentrate.

Tamarind is sold as a paste (in cellophane-wrapped 'bricks' or jars), powder, and syrup forms, according to "Melissa's Great Book of Produce" by Cathy Thomas. The bricks, the book adds, may be stored up to one year at room temperature.

These forms of tamarind are easy to use but knowing your curiosity, my friend, I bet you'll try cooking with the fresh pods. You can find the pods in the produce section of Asian and Latin markets and some supermarkets, where they may be listed as tamarindo or Indian date. Thomas' book notes unpeeled pods can be stored at room temperature in zipper-style plastic bags for up to three months.

To make pulp, Thomas recommends you remove and discard the pods. Put the pulp with seeds in a saucepan and pour in enough water to cover completely. Simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes, adding more water if necessary. Push pulp through a medium sieve into a bowl. Discard seeds. Refrigerate, well sealed, for up to one week or freeze.

"Melissa's Great Book of Produce" offers various suggestions for using the tamarind pulp. Dilute with water, add sugar to taste, and serve chilled as a drink. Combine two cups cooled sugar syrup and one cup tamarind paste in an ice cream maker to make sorbet. "Use paste in raw or cooked chutney to balance spicy-hot and sweet elements,'' the book suggests. Below, I've given Thomas' recipe for a tamarind vinaigrette. Use with greens or game, she writes.

Stir-fried sambal shrimp

Prep: 40 minutes Cook: 25 minutes Makes: 4 servings

This recipe comes from "Flavors of Malaysia" by Susheela Raghavan. Sambal oelek is a chili-based condiment; look for it, tamarind and shrimp paste in Asian markets. Serve with rice.

1 pound shrimp, shelled, deveined, tails intact

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/4 cup oil

1 cup chopped, pureed tomatoes

2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate

3 to 4 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

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