I remember the first time I saw whole tamarind. I was in Cambodia, and a group of kids were selling the fruit on the side of a dirt road. The dried pods looked a bit like fava bean pods and matched the color of the road, as if they had been tossed in cocoa powder. I bought a bundle, cracking open the shells, chewing on the meaty and tangy fruit, spitting out the seeds—I was instantly in love.
It wasn't that I had never heard of tamarind or cooked with the paste. The fruit, which is originally from Equatorial Africa, is a staple of Thai, Indian and Mexican cooking, lending its sour note to traditional pad Thai, Indian chutneys, cooling sodas throughout Latin America and working its way into heaps of other dishes. Even if you're unfamiliar with it, you've likely had it.
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But finding tamarind in its whole form is challenging, even in the better stocked food markets of New York (thankfully, it's available online these days). So what should you do when you have a whole box sitting in the fridge?
First things first. Crack open the pods and eat the fruit plain—it is utterly delicious (just don't eat too many in one sitting; they're a bit like prunes). If you want the fruit to last a bit longer, you can also make a paste by peeling the flesh off of the seeds then covering them with boiling water for 20 minutes, mashing into a rough paste once softened. Press the mixture through a sieve into a bowl, discarding any seeds or thick fibers. This will last in the fridge for a week, but feel free to freeze it if you want to keep it longer.
You can also buy the paste in a block or a jar. Next time you have tamarind on hand try one of these:
① Mix into a barbecue sauce for a tangy chicken fingers dip.
② Make Bollywood Theater's well-spiced okra sambar, which balances tamarind with serrano peppers, sambar masala and black mustard seeds.
③ Top Indian nachos with it in Babu Ji's papadi chaat.
④ And for something to sip, there's always Andy Ricker's tamarind whiskey sour.
Have a favorite use for tamarind? Tell us about it on Twitter @TastingTable.