Tamarind (or tamr hind “Indian date”–in other words, long cultivated throughout South Asia) is a key souring agent used in Southeast Asian cooking. I touched on this ingredient briefly in a prior post on Three essential Cambodian flavors. In that post I used a compressed block of sour tamarind. Today (and due to its impressive result, from now on) I’m taking another step back in the production chain to go directly to the dried fruit, for snacking, and also for making sour tamarind juice for cooking.
The name for tamarind in Thai and Lao is makhaam มะขาม/ໝາກຂາມ, and it is called ampil អម្ពិល in Khmer. The fruit is alien-looking and fibrous, but it is highly nutritious and delicious. Being the miracle fruit that it is, it has a laxative property similar to prune, and it can even be used to polish brass (here is a video on an example of that).
Most Asian markets in town sell some sort of tamarind for cooking with, whether it be in compressed block form, in Thai known as makhaam biak มะขามเปียก (“wet tamarind”), tamarind concentrate sauce, and even as an instant powder from Knorr.
The whole fruit can also be found at many Asian markets (the larger ones are likely to have them), from Chinatown to H-Mart. You can find them in brightly colored boxes, usually in the produce section. These are likely tamarind from Thailand, but tamarind from Mexico can also be found at large grocery stores in Philadelphia. I don’t know how sour the Mexican variety are in comparison to what I’ve got here today.
Thailand’s tamarind trees have different species. Two of those are showcased here, marketed as “sweet” and “sour”. Both are ripened fruits, can be enjoyed on their own as a snack. I’d say that sweet tamarind would appeal to most tastes. Sweet and gummy. The sour variety however, would appeal only to those who really love sour gummy candies (like Sour Patch Kids, Sour Punch Straws, etc). Sour tamarind is even more sour than mainstream sour candy. It’s quite a punch.
This punchy sour tamarind is the one to use for cooking. When it is combined with savory flavors of fish sauce and palm sugar, it provides a fascinating new level of flavor. In Thai, Lao, and Cambodian cooking, sour tamarind is prepared by being made into a sauce prior to cooking. It is great in soups (like the one below or the Cambodian sour beef soup mentioned previously), and in salads (like papaya salad for example). It is also a key ingredient in dishes famous in the U.S.: Pad Thai and “tamarind shrimp”. To make a sauce concentrate from the fruit, here is a step by step process:
Recipe: Sour soup with green papaya and fried salmon (Gaeng som malagau plaa salmon) แกงส้มมะละกอปลาแซลมอน
This is a great soup from Central and Southern Thailand, and I find it to be a treat on a cool fall day. The key flavors in this soup are sour tamarind juice (see above), heat from chiles, and a slight medicinal flavor from what is generally referred to as “rhizome”. Most vegetables would be good in this soup, classic pairs are green papaya, napa cabbage, cauliflower, bamboo shoots.
1. Make soup paste with about 3 shallots, 3 cloves garlic, 2 fingers of rhizome (I used frozen kind), small piece of galangal, 6 Thai dried chiles, 3 goat chiles or 1 large New Mexico chile (soaking this helps break the skin), 1 tsp each of salt, and kapi (crayfish paste).
2. Take about a pound of a fish that won’t flake too easy (I’m using salmon today). slice tall 1/2 inch slices. Pan fry on medium high to make some crust. As you can see I left skin on:
3. Boil 5 cups of water in a pot. Add in the soup paste. Season with about 1/4-1/3 cup of tamarind water, 1-1 1/2 Tblsp palm sugar (I usually crush mine first in my mortar and pestle), and fish sauce to taste. Should be salty, sour, little sweet.
4. chop veggies to go into the soup. We used leftover green papaya and some cauliflower florets. Things can be rustic.
5. Boil soup until veggies are cooked. Papaya is cooked when it is nearly translucent, similar to daikon.
6. When veggies are cooked, readjust for flavors. Add fish sauce and tamarind if necessary. Finally, mix in the fried fish. Serve.