Guest post and photos by Peter in Brazil, chef and co-owner of Pousada do Capão
We lunched at Al Arabe Lebanese Restaurant last week during our routine weekly shopping junket to Diamantina. A cold, tall glass of tart tamarind juice, over ice and lightly sweetened with brown sugar, was just what I needed to take the edge off the noonday heat. And it was the perfect accompaniment to a plate of Ahmed’s meat kibbeh and delicious fatoosh salad.
As we returned to the center of town to finish up a few errands before heading home to São Gonçalo, I couldn’t resist buying some tamarind pods from a street vendor, whose wheelbarrow was brimming with not only tamarind, but also mangoes, okra, araticum, pequi, and other delicacies of the cerrado.
Usually I write about my pantry items that are native to Brazil and were globalized with the help of the Portuguese and Spanish explorers. Tamarind, on the other hand, is native to Africa and subsequently was naturalized all over the tropical world by colonizers and traders.
Its uses run the gamut from dyestuff to laxative to cattle fodder to furniture-making, but today I'll stick to its culinary appeal.
The large leguminous tamarind tree produces a velvety, cocoa-colored pod full of bean-like seeds and an orangey-brown, sticky, sour-sweet pulp. It was known in ancient Egypt and Greece and caught on so well in India that many believe it to have originated there. The name tamarind (tamar hindi), in fact, means "Indian date".
Essential to African, Indian, Mexican, and Caribbean cooking, tamarind gives tang and depth to that old favorite, Worcestershire sauce. Here in Brazil it shows up most often as a drink, as popsicles or sherbet, and as jammy sweets.
I have always loved the sweet and sour lemon-apricot-date flavor of tamarind, but had never seen it for sale in Diamantina before. All the bumpy 34 kilometers back to the inn, I was thinking about tamarind ice cream, tamarind whiskey sours, tamarind with fish, chocolates with tamarind filling, tamarind apple pie, tamarind in place of anything with dried apricots or apricot jam, and tamarind with chicken.
This recipe is a great synthesis of things African and Portuguese, and it is easy to prepare. The simple ingredients complement each other and produce a rich, delicious, surprisingly complex sauce. Serves 6-8.
I made my tamarind puree from scratch by shelling one pound of pods and soaking in water to cover over night, then straining to remove seeds and any additional bits of shell. This yielded approximately 2-1/2 cups of puree, and I used 1-3/4 cups in this recipe. For the convenience-minded, I have substituted reconstituted tamarind paste in the recipe, but by all means start from scratch if you are game!
4 oz tamarind paste
1-1/2 cups boiling water
6 oz dry white wine
Hot pepper sauce, to taste
2 tsp kosher salt
Small bunch of parsley
4 lbs chicken thighs, bone-in (or legs and thighs)
2 yellow onions, grated
2 Tbsp butter (or margarine)
4 cloves garlic, minced
Dissolve the tamarind paste in boiling water to make a smooth puree, adding water as needed to reach the consistency of tomato sauce. Chop the parsley leaves, reserving stems, and set aside. Separate the scallion greens from the white parts. Leave the greens whole and chop the white parts. Set aside.
Mix the tamarind puree, white wine, hot pepper sauce to taste (go easy -– you can always add more later) and salt to make the marinade. Tie the parsley stems and scallions greens in a bunch (to make a bouquet garni) and add to the marinade. Pour the marinade over the chicken pieces, mix well, and let marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight, in the refrigerator. I recommend marinating overnight, if time allows.
Preheat oven to 325°F.
In a large frying pan, brown the grated onions and chopped white parts of the scallions in the butter (or margarine). Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove the bouquet garni from the chicken, add the chicken pieces to the onion/garlic/scallion mixture and mix well.
Arrange the chicken pieces in a single layer in a baking pan, and spoon the marinade over the chicken. Bake in a 325F oven, turning the chicken and basting from time to time to allow even browning, until the meat is tender and the sauce is nice and thick, approximately 50-60 minutes. If the sauce seems to be thickening too quickly, add a bit of chicken stock or water during the cooking, as needed.
Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with fresh creamed corn and additional hot pepper sauce on the side.
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