I’d already heard of “tamarind paste” plenty of times. Until this week, though, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you exactly what it was, or even where to find it.
Some exotic spice, no? The one that giddily finds its way into Indian and Thai cookbooks; the one I’d always ignored. Until my most recent cooking adventure, I’d always skipped that part of the recipe, replacing the unknown with the familiar. I only ever thought freshly squeezed lime juice could be my accomplice in Pad Thai crime. I knew this friendly fruit could easily replace the so-called “tamarind,” and at least I knew where it came from and what tang it’d give my noodles.
That’s where my story starts, actually- with my trip to the Paris-based Asian grocery store, Tang Frère (*see note below), to buy the ingredients for one of my all-time favorites: homemade Pad Thai. There I was buying bean sprouts, leafy greens, hot chili sauce, carrots, rice noodles, lime- you name it- all those ingredients I usually buy to make my dish. Yes, there I was, minding my business, when I looked up and saw a stack of bright red boxes marked “sweet tamarind.” Wow, I thought. It really exists. And it’s here in France, in front of me. And, wow, it’s a… fruit? That ‘s funny, whatever it is, it’s in a… it’s in a pod- a strange little four-inch brown pod. In my moment of folly, I didn’t know anything from anything, except that “tamarind paste” must come from this “tamarind” fruit. Decided: If I was going to make Pad Thai, I was going to make it “the real way.” My very spontaneous idea was first to make tamarind paste.
As I learned, tamarind is a fruit that grows on a tamarind tree. The outside, indeed, is a curvy, bumpy pod which is filled with large seeds, a fibrous spine and, of course, pulp. Normally, tamarind is fairly acidic, getting sweeter as it ripens. The ripe pulp can be eaten just like that or, after being made into a paste, can be used in cooking. Tamarind contributes to the sweet/sour taste in a variety of recipes; popular in India, it’s one of the main ingredients in chutney, for example.
Cracking open my first pod and tasting the pulp, I was reminded of a date- a similar chewy, sticky texture and a similar dark red/brown color. Thus, my problem: I thought tamarind was supposed to be acidic. This was quite sweet.
I forged on and tried using a few different (intuitive) methods of making my tamarind paste. I tried soaking the peeled whole in boiling water, then picking through the seeds and fibers and crushing the pulp through a sieve. But, it was too liquid, tasted like water and was too sweet. Then I tried again, with less water, at room temperature. (I know, there was no “constant” in my experiment- very bad). This time, my paste was too thick and still too sweet. I reminded myself I had bought “sweet tamarind” from Thailand and began to wonder if maybe there were other kinds. Then I realized I had no idea what tamarind paste was supposed to taste like or what the consistency should be.
In short, I ended up resorting back to my lime for that evening’s Pad Thai. I’m not finished with this one, though! Next task: find some sample tamarind paste (apparently, it’s sold either as a block that has to be prepared or ready-made in a jar). Then, back to the tamarind pods (once I figure out if I can find some sour ones!), finger smooshing and sieving.
Anyone know more about tamarind and making the paste from scratch?
*Tang Frère is an Asian grocery store not to be missed. It has two locations in Paris: 168, Avenue de Choisy (13th arrondissement, China Town) and 41, Rue Labrouste (15th arrondissement). Although both will entice you with an array of not-so-common products, the China Town location is the largest and most well-known. Fresh tofu, rice paper wrappers for spring rolls, wasabi…