What fruit can ward off night demons (stick the pod in your ear, as the British did in Victorian India), polish copper and silver, cure a sore throat, enhance a woman's sexuality, and make amazing curries and vindaloos, chutneys, soups, sorbet and drinks?
And had an Omar Sharif/Julie Christie romantic thriller named after it?
You're right — it's tamarind.
The first time I brought home a block of tamarind, I had no idea what to do with it. It was heavy and squishy, the consistency of moist modeling clay, and the only word in English on the label was ... tamarind. No clues there, but it turns out that tamarind is easy to use, and the sweet-sour taste and aroma add authenticity to Thai and Indian dishes.
Tamarind thrives in semi-arid, monsoonal, tropical climates of India, Africa and the West Indies, so it's no surprise that the fruit features in the cuisines of those regions. High in pectin, tamarind also is used in cosmetics and paints.
In Indian markets I buy tamarind concentrate (the round container in the photo above), which has a jam-like consistency, but most often I find the rectangular bricks. Occasionally I see the fruit pods, too, but I've never tried to cook with them (use the sticky pulp inside the pod). Stored at room temperature, tamarind pulp will keep forever.
To use the tamarind brick, break off a small piece (usually a tablespoon or so), and soak it in hot water to cover for 30 minutes. Break up the pulp with your hands or a wooden spoon to allow all of the flavor to leach out, then rub the tamarind and the liquid through a sieve. Discard any tough fibers and seeds that remain in the sieve. Store the strained pulp, often called tamarind water or tamarind juice*, for one month in the refrigerator, or freeze it. (Note: tamarind concentrate does not need to be soaked before use.)
If you are superstitious and own an elephant — a good luck totem, but a darned big pet — feed it some tamarind bark and fruit, which are said to be one source of elephants' wisdom.
I don't know about that, but I do feel like a wise cook when I've got tamarind in my pantry.
Pineapple shrimp curry
It was an inevitable, and happy, consequence of moving my cookbook collection into the wonderful new bookcase Ted built for me, that I would find a few treasures I'd long forgotten. Sandeep Chatterjee's The Spice Trail: One Hundred Hot Dishes from India to Indonesia, is one of those treasures, and it's the source of this sweet-and-sour recipe from central Thailand. I've adapted a tiny bit. Serves 6.
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
3 Tbsp red curry paste (storebought, or homemade)
2 Tbsp tamarind water*
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp fish sauce
2 cups coconut milk
4-5 kaffir lime leaves, torn, or 1 Tbsp lime zest
Salt, to taste
1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 small pineapple (approx. 4 oz), peeled and finely chopped
1 red chile pepper, split (optional)
Heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the curry paste and sauté 3-4 minutes.
Add the tamarind water, brown sugar, fish sauce, coconut milk and lime leaves. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Check the seasoning, and add salt as necessary. Add the shrimp and simmer for 3-5 minutes, until cooked.
Turn out onto a platter, garnish with the pineapple pieces and red chile pepper (if using). Serve over boiled rice.
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