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Thai Tamarind Ingredient

Tamarind – Makahm

The reddish brown, curved seed pods of a lovely tropical tree hold several large seeds encased by moist, sticky, dark brown flesh that varies from being very sweet to very sour. The latter is used as one of the primary souring agents in Thai cooking, imparting a delicious fruity tartness to soups, salads, stir-fries and sauces.

The large lacy-leaf trees are common in the tropics the world over. The tamarind pod is oblong and curved in shape and looks much like the seed pod of many large flowering trees. When young, the pods are green and fleshy. As they ripen, they turn reddish brown and become brittle on the outside; inside, the rich, dark brown flesh of the fruit is moist and sticky, enveloping a row of bean-like seeds. Because of its widespread habitat and easy cultivation, tamarind has found its way into the cuisines of many countries around the world, from the African and Asian continents to the tropical Americas. In Thailand, tamarind trees are often grown for their shade as much as for their fruit pods. These beautiful trees grace many city parks in Bangkok and other provincial towns. They are also found in the gardens of many Thai homes.

Varieties of Tamarind

There are several varieties of tamarind. Some yield fruits that are very sweet, without the slightest trace of sour. These sweet varieties command a high price at the market and are sold in their ripened pods to be eaten fresh as fruits. The province of Petchaboon in northeastern Thailand is known for its sweet tamarind (makahm wahn). Each year, when the fruit comes into season during the dry months, a Sweet Tamarind Fair is held with lots of festivities and lots of delicious tamarind to sample and take home. During this time of year, bags of the plump brown pods are peddled around by street hawkers as well as piled among colorful fruits at fruit stands across the country. The prized good-eating varieties even find their way into prepackaged gift baskets sold in modern Bangkok supermarkets, alongside imported fruits, canned goods and chocolates.

More common varieties produce tart fruits that vary from sweet-and-sour to mouth-puckering sour. The less sour ones – removed from their brittle pods and coated with a mixture of salt, sugar and crushed chillies – are a delight to nibble. They wake up the mouth, get the juices flowing and temporarily quench thirst. Others are cooked in syrup with their seeds strained out and made into candied tamarind. They are great for the digestive tract and have a mild, natural laxative effect. Additionally, tamarind is believed to possess blood purifying properties.

Tamarind in Cooking

If you are able to find sour tamarind pods, break open the brittle pods and remove the moist flesh from the strings that hold them in place. Remove the seeds and use the meat to make tamarind water or juice. For more consistent results in cooking, I use "wet tamarind" (makahm bpiak). This is the dark brown flesh of ripe sour tamarind removed from the pods, compressed into compact blocks and sold in Thai and Southeast Asian markets. Labeled as "wet tamarind" or simply "tamarind," most brands already have the fibrous strings and most of the seeds removed. In buying wet tamarind, I usually squeeze the package to feel its softness; a softer package generally is fresher, more moist, easier to work with and yields better-tasting tamarind juice.

Making tamarind juice with your fingers works best, as mashing with a spoon or fork does not do as efficient a job in dissolving the soft pulp and will either take more time or waste a lot of tamarind; and straining through a sieve only makes a mess that requires more time to clean up. To use, break a small chunk of wet tamarind and mix with a few tablespoons of water, using your fingers to knead and mush the soft part of the fruit so that it melts into the water. Gather up the undissolvable pulp and any seeds with your hand, squeeze out the juice and discard. You should end up with a fairly thick brownish fluid called "tamarind water" (translated from the Thai nahm som makahm bpiak). Use this fluid form in your Thai dishes. If you wish to make a large quantity of tamarind water, soaking the tamarind in warm or hot water first to soften will help speed the process.

How much tamarind to use for a given volume of water depends on whether there are seeds and how much soft pulp there is in the chunk. Start out with 1 Tbs. to 1/4 cup water; the amount to use, of course, will depend on whether there are a lot of seeds in the package you buy. If the fluid becomes too thick, add a little more water; if the fluid is thin, add more tamarind. For most dishes, you want to have a fluid the consistency of fruit concentrate. If it is too thin and runny, it can dilute flavors and introduce unwanted liquid to dry dishes, such as salads, while at the same time, add too little of the desired sour flavor.

The wet tamarind block, when kept airtight in a cool place, lasts indefinitely and needs no refrigeration. It is like preserved dried fruit. Pre-mixed, ready-to-use tamarind water in containers is available from most Southeast Asian markets; however, it is not as fresh-tasting as making your own and tends to have a very dark, unappetizing color. Once opened, it must be refrigerated, and even so, can spoil after a couple of weeks. Price-wise and quality-wise, you get a lot more for your money with a block of wet tamarind. If you make a large batch of tamarind juice ahead of time, keep it no more than a week in the refrigerator as it may start to ferment after that.

Other Uses for Tamarind

Besides using it in cooking, wet tamarind is a valuable silver polisher; the large silver factories in Chiang Mai use plenty of it to shine their beautifully tooled silver bowls and jewelry to an impeccable sheen.

In addition to the tart fruit, the edible leaves and flowers of tamarind trees are also sour and are eaten fresh in salads and with chilli dips. They are used instead of the fruits to add sourness to some types of spicy-sour soups. Tamarind seeds, on the other hand, are roasted and added to other roasted ingredients to make a coffee substitute. They are also roasted, soaked and eaten whole as a folk medicine to drive out intestinal parasites.