Tamarind: A Flavor Boost from Salad to Dessert
By Karen Hursh Graber, writing from Mexico
An iconic ingredient in Mexican cuisine, tamarind has traditionally been used in all manner of beverages and sweets, and has recently appeared in menu categories from salads to desserts.
Used since the Colonial period, when the Spanish brought it to the country on the Spanish caravels that plied the waters from the Philippines to Mexico’s western shores, tamarind has a bright, tart taste that brings out the flavor of other foods.
Native to India, the fruit of the tamarind tree is used extensively in Asian cooking, which shares several common ingredients such as cilantro, coconut, mango and chiles with Mexican fare. Although the first mention of tamarind in the Americas was in Acapulco in 1516, today’s Mexican chefs throughout the country are discovering its affinity for sweet, savory, and smoky culinary elements.
Versatile ingredient stars on restaurant menus
Used in a wide variety of vegetable, fruit and seafood salads, tamarind vinaigrette dresses the ensalada paraíso at Los Mercaderes in Mexico City. This combination of lettuce, jicama, apples, celery and strawberries is flavored with a mixture of tamarind, honey and champagne vinegar. At Puerto Vallarta’s La Palapa, tamarind vinaigrette is used in the shrimp and portobello salad, and that city’s Archie’s Wok has featured a baby lettuce and arugula salad with tamarind vinaigrette as part of its Restaurant Week menu.
Sauces made with tamarind pair especially well with fish and seafood and, not surprisingly, are popular along Mexico’s coasts. At La Habichuela Sunset in Cancun, an amaranth crusted fish filet is served with tamarind sauce and garnished with a tropical fruit pico de gallo, while La Habichuela’s downtown restaurant serves an entrée of lightly fried coconut shrimp in tamarind sauce. And Lorenzillo’s, in Cabo San Lucas, offers either shrimp or lobster with salsa de ciruela y tamerindo al chipotle, a tamarind, plum and chipotle chile sauce. At Puebla’s Casona de la China Poblana, shrimp is served in the house special tamarind mole.
This combination of tamarind and smoked chile is also popular in glazes and sauces for meat, such as the tamarind-glazed baby back ribs and pork filet at Café des Artistes in Puerto Vallarta and the costillas en adobo de tamarindo, oven-roasted shoulder spare ribs in chile and tamarind sauce served at Mi Casa in Cabo San Lucas. At Puerto Vallarta’s River Café, a tamarind and chipotle sauce accompanies the crispy pork and chicken filled wontons, and in many regions of the country, chicken breast in tamarind sauce has become a familiar dish both on restaurant menus and at home.
Tamarind is also used as an ingredient in salsa, especially along the Pacific coast of Guerrero, where a tamarind table salsa is made with fresh green chiles and epazote.
In addition, tamarind stars in beverages and cocktails, and agua de tamarindo is a standard fruit agua, one of three that is always available at Casa de Frida in Merida. The fruit is also popular for use in daiquiris, martinis, and for tamarind margaritas such as the one served at Casa Lamm in Mexico City. At Casona de la China Poblana, a deconstructed version of Mexico’s classic tamarind candy appears as a beverage, with the characteristic fruit, sugar and chile flavors of dulce de tamarindo.
Other sweets, such as nieves and paletas (ices and ice pops), sorbets and granitas, are frequently made with tamarind. Nectar de tamarindo is the basis for several dessert sauces, flavored with honey or other fruit and served as a topping for ice cream, cake, or fried plantains.
Combine tamarind with other tropical fruits in sauces and salad dressings, where it goes well with orange, pineapple and mango. Blend honey with tamarind pulp and the adobo from chipotles in adobo for a smoky, sweet and sour glaze for grilled meat, poultry or seafood. Both shrimp and chicken provide blank canvases for creative combinations; for a higher-end dish, use duck breast.
Try using tamarind in meat marinades. Because of its natural acidity, it breaks down tough meat fibers and is good with more economical cuts, providing flavor and tenderness to beef for fajitas. Adding some Worcestershire sauce (salsa inglesa) to marinades intensifies the tamarind flavor, since this seasoning contains tamarind extract.
Buying and using tamarind
There are several options for buying and storing tamarind. The 5- to 6-inch long brown pods, resembling bean pods, are sold in cellophane bags in Latin and Asian supermarkets and in bulk in Mexico’s mercados. These have matured and dried, leaving a somewhat sticky pulp within. Remove the pod and veins and cook the tamarind with a small amount of water before using your fingers to separate the pulp from the seeds. Four-and-a-half ounces of whole dried pods will yield about a cup of tamarind pulp.
Tamarind paste or concentrate without seeds comes in plastic tubs or jars, and should be refrigerated after opening. Tamarind paste with seeds is usually sold in one-pound blocks. Tamarind pulp and drink mixes are also sold frozen, and sweetened tamarind syrup is available ready-to-use for making agua.
To make your own tamarind nectar for syrup, cocktails, sauces or desserts, use two-thirds cup of tamarind pulp to six cups of boiling water. Mash the pulp until it dissolves, cool and strain. Sweeten the nectar to taste according to desired use. Tamarind agua and desserts will require more sugar than most savory sauces and cocktails.