Tamarind is widely used in southeast Asian cooking. It’s mostly sour (think: eye-wateringly tart) and is the underrated ingredient that gives everyone’s fave takeaway treat – pad thai – its signature funky flavour. But if you’ve ever popped to your local grocer to look for it, you’ll have no doubt noticed the different types of tamarind: purees, pulps, pastes and even powders. So what’s the go? What is tamarind and where do you even start with it?
Tamarind is a pod-like fruit that is thought to be native to Africa and is found readily across the tropical regions of southeast Asia. The mature pods that grow on the tamarind tree contain the pulpy, dark coloured flesh of the fruit, which adds a tangy and tart flavour to many savoury Asian dishes. It’s also commonly used in desserts in other parts of the world.
Just when you thought this elusive ingredient had been demystified, enter all its variations: puree, paste, pulp and powder forms of tamarind (try saying that five times fast!). And which one you choose can mean a different preparation or quantity used.
So many types of tamarind begs the question – what’s the difference between them all?
Tamarind paste is sometimes called tamarind concentrate and can be purchased in jars. It’s often recommended to dilute the paste with a few tablespoons of water as it is the cooked down, intense variety, so be sure to follow the label instructions on the specific product you’ve bought. Not only that, but the thickness and strength of the tamarind paste can differ between brands, so start little and add more as you go. However, it is one of the most convenient variations, as you’ll get that hit of sour goodness without any hard work.
Tamarind puree is probably the most common form of the fruit found in mainstream supermarkets. Rather than being a jar of intense concentrate, tamarind puree has a much thinner consistency and is usually ready to add to dishes without diluting with water first.
Now this is the real deal. If you don’t mind taking some extra time in the name of authenticity, tamarind pulp is the way to go. This product is sold in solid bricks of fruit, complete with seeds and stalks. To use it, you’ll need to soak it in a little warm water and use your hands to squeeze and soften the fruity pulp. Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to strain out and discard the stalks and pips.
Tamarind powder is making more of a mainstream appearance these days. And, while it isn’t as well known as the other types of tamarind, it’s worth getting your hands on all the same. The powder version of the fruit is a sour, almost spicy tasting powder that is typically added to drinks, snacks, sauces and even lollies. How very Heston Blumenthal!
Tamarind has a very distinct sour, citrusy and slightly caramel flavour that makes it perfect for cooking both savoury AND sweet dishes. It’s used extensively in Indian cuisine, it’s one of the pillars of Thai food (it’s what makes pad thai, pad thai!), and it’s also commonly found in Vietnamese dishes.
Tamarind is the ingredient that gives pad Thai its delicious tang.
Much like there are multiple types of tamarind, there are, of course, multiple ways to store it. Pastes and purees can be stored in a cool dry place if unopened, and many varieties say they can be kept there once opened too. However, for optimal freshness, you may want to make room for them in the fridge. Tamarind pulp can be stored in the freezer in order to maximise shelf life and you can simply break it off and defrost as needed. As for the powder – that’s totally happy living its best life in the pantry.
You can pick up paste and puree from the Asian section of most major supermarkets. The pulp and powder versions of the fruit may be a little more difficult to hunt down, but your local Asian grocer should stock this wonder fruit in all its forms.
So you just can’t face another supermarket trip and you want to use your pantry staples to get that tamarind tang, we’ve all been there! In terms of substituting, purists will argue there’s nothing quite like tamarind. But so long as it’s not the main component of the dish and the recipe calls for under 2 tablespoons of the stuff, there ARE workarounds.
It really depends on the type of cuisine you’re cooking. For instance, this Pantry Pad Thai recipe uses tomato paste and vinegar as a handy tamarind substitute, giving you that optimal blend of umami and tang. But if you’re cooking Indian cuisine you’re gonna want to find something slightly more acidic – green mango chutney can work well.
Tamarind is also shelf stable, which means you can order it online and get it shipped to your door.