Green tamarind and tamarind leaves are back at my go-to Cambodian market, providing an opportunity to explore cooking with these rare Southeast Asian sour treats. Dried tamarind fruit is of course a standard souring agent for cuisines ranging from Persia all the way to Southeast Asia (and even to Central America). I previously posted on the joys of souring soups and salads with that food item in Cambodian cooking and Thai cooking. That sticky and sweet/sour fruit or compressed blocks of it are pretty easy to come by in Philadelphia, especially at markets that cater to South and Southeast Asian tastes. Tamarind leaves, however, are a lot less common in Philly markets. But today I found the leaves, together with the raw green tamarind fruit.
Green tamarind is perhaps most commonly eaten in Thailand primarily two ways: skin scraped and pounded with aromatics and raw pork or shrimp and peppers in a mortar and pestle, and then pan-fried into a meaty and intensely flavored dip for raw vegetables–see here for an image search of that dish; the other way is to eat it simply as is, a crispy sour green fruit dipped in a complement of a funky nam phrik spice paste (usually flavored with aromatics and fermented fish, crayfish, or shrimp paste)–see here for for a video example of that preparation. In coming days I hope to experiment with dips, but today I am making a tom yam-style soup, relying heavily on the sour tamarind leaves for the sour note.
The soup I am emulating is a popular one around Thailand, especially in Isaan. Names for this dish range from simply “boiled chicken with young tamarind leaves” ต้มไก่บ้านใบมะขามอ่อน to “tom yam chicken with tamarind leaves” ต้มยำไก่ใบมะขามอ่อน.
If you are familiar with tom yam-style soups, this cooking process is pretty similar. Most recipes found for this dish tend to use the same essential “kreung gaeng” เครื่องแกง soup components of lemongrass, galangal, and chile. I also used tomato, bashed shallots, and makrut leaves. Amounts of young tamarind leaves can range from 1/2 cup per pound of chicken to 2 cups of leaves for the same amount. I used about a cup of leaves, and I also added a little lime at the end too.
I should also say that the chicken I used was a typical US chicken thigh. Most commonly in Thailand, this dish is prepared with a bone-in chopped up “domestic” chicken (i.e. a type of fowl more closely related to pheasant and are the type strutting around the village–gai baan ไก่บ้าน). These birds are full of flavor, but they are a lot less meaty. Comparable birds can also be found in certain Philly Chinese markets (Hong Kong Supermarket on Adams, for example). The bodies are longer, and a little more gangly. I didn’t have access to one of those today though, so I’m going with some chicken I had in the freezer.
The most time-consuming part of this cooking event was separating young, tender leaves from the pile of tamarind leaves that I bought. Older leaves would also be fine in the soup, but they would be hard to chew and swallow. I chose to sort through the leaves and separate the young and tender sections for soup today. See images below for what to look for. Basically, if the stem feels woody or twiggy, or if it is hard to pull the stems apart, it will be too hard to chew (although those leaves will also impart a pleasant sourness to the soup).
Recipe: Boiled chicken with young tamarind leaves – ต้มไก่ใบมะขามอ่อน
This soup is very simple, and is very similar to other standard tom yam preparation. As with tom yam, fresh aromatics are key! This takes about 30-40 minutes if you use chicken like I did. My recipe is a compilation from examples found in my cookbooks (Saep Isaan แซบอีสาน by Ratri Gaewsaengtaam ราตรี แก้วแสงธรรม, 2012, and Ahaan Isaan อาหารอีสาน by Ajaan Wut Jalaagun อาจารย์วุฒิ จาลากุล, 2015) and Thai language videos from webchef Krua Pitpilai and ThaiFoodTravel.tv. Straw mushrooms are also commonly used in this dish (if you used the canned ones, rinse them of brine).
- coarsely chopped chicken, 1.5 lbs
- prepared young tamarind leaves, 1 cup (or more)
- galangal root, 6-7 coarse slices
- 2 lemongrass bottoms 2″, coarsely sliced
- 3-5Thai chiles, whacked
- 3 shallots, peeled and whacked
- 5 magrut leaves
- 3 Tbsp fish sauce (or to taste)
- 5-6 small tomatoes, halved
- water to cover, 5 cups+
- salt (or “chicken powder”) to taste
- lime juice or prepared tamarind sauce to taste (optional)
Boil about 5 cups water. Add in galangal, lemongrass, chiles, shallots, and magrut leaves, tomatoes, and a good squirt of fish sauce
- After those items return to boil, add chicken. After the chicken returns to boil, turn heat down to medium low. Skim any discolored foam off the top of the soup as the chicken simmers away.
- When chicken is cooked through, taste for salt. Add fish sauce and or salt to adjust. It should be pretty full flavored.
- Finish by dumping tamarind leaves in. Turn off the heat and give it a good stir. Taste for sourness. Add lime, or more tamarind leaves to adjust. Prepared tamarind sauce is also a delicious sour addition to the soup. If you plan to add this, you can add it while the soup is still on the boil.