Sucking on a leathery tamarind fruit is as much punishment as it is a pleasure. The initial sweetness, gives way to such tartness, it pinches the sides of your tongue to release more saliva just to cope. There might be hilarious facial contortions, great for on-lookers. If you lived through that, chances are you like it, and I’ll bet, you’ll take another chomp. The flavour of tamarind is a hard one to describe. Sharp apple, molasses/date like sweetness, maybe a bit of peanut, sour, tart and with a twang that’s instantly recognisable. Worchestershire sauce wouldn’t be what it is, without this brown sticky gunge. The thing I love most about eating sweet tamarind, is this odd sensation of warmth that spreads over your mouth. Oh, it’s definitely a complex bunch of beans.
For a fruit that started off in Africa, South East Asia and Mexico are the largest consumers. In India, it is used extensively in South Indian food, particularly with seafood and vegetable, both of which naturally benefit from an acidic element to bring out their quieter flavours. Thailand, Mexico and India also share a love of tamarind drinks. While other countries tend to sweeten the fruit and leave it at that, Indians of course, need to spice things up.
Now, I am a kitchen heathen – I’ve used the concentrated Indian tamarind paste instead of soaking the pods, just for ease. Note that the Thai pastes have a slightly different flavour and are not as acidic as the Indian ones. Traditional flavourings chucked into the mix are – black salt (well, it’s actually pink!), roasted cumin seed powder, ginger and clove. I opted to use Chaat Masala as it contains black salt and cumin. Know, that a good scraping of ginger, left to infuse in the warmed mix, brings a lovely, refreshing note. Brown sugar was the sweetener of my choice. Traditionally, it would be jaggery melted in a pan but both echo the molasses note in tamarind. The following recipe gives you a concentrated potion you can dilute to your liking.
Tamarind brooks no compromise; you either love it or hate it. The Scotsman, wrinkled his face and handed back the glass sharply, panic stricken ice cubes clinking madly against the edge. ” Tastes like angostura bitter”, he said scornfully. There’s no point battling over someone’s palate. Good thing I love the man!
100gm light brown sugar
1/8th teaspoon chaat masala, optional
2 cups of water
Squeeze of lemon juice to taste, optional
Place all the ingredients into a small saucepan and put on the heat, just to melt the sugar and tamarind. Whisk to bring it all together. Take off heat, let it cool and spritz in the lemon. Strain the concentrate through a fine muslin or sieve, before placing in a jar in the fridge. To serve, dilute with chilled water (I used around 5 cups, but taste as you go along) and pour into tall glasses filled with ice cubes. Stuff in some mint leaves. The tamarind will sink as it sits, so straws or stirrers are a good idea.
Instead of chaat masala, you could use either of the below.
- 1/4 – 1/2 tsp black salt (take care, this has quite a pungent ‘aroma’ but it adds an incredible savoury depth to food)
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- Just under one teaspoon of roasted cumin seed powder – ‘roast’ the cumin seeds in an oil free pan, on medium heat, until the seeds turn a couple of shades darker and release a heady aroma, but are not smoking. Immediately place into a spice grinder or pestle and mortar and bash to a fine powder. Add this to the tamarind mix in the pan, allowing it to infuse the mix as it cools. Proceed as above.
- Finely sliced 1″ piece of fresh ginger – Put this into the pan after the sugar has melted, let it warm through and then set aside to infuse as the mix cools. Proceed as above.