Tamarind paste is a seasoning made from the tamarind fruit, which is native to Africa but is now mostly grown in India. Sweet and acidic, this paste is used primarily in Indian, Mexican, and Thai cooking. It is sold in specialty stores but can also be handmade.
Tamarind fruit comes in short or long pods depending on the species of tamarind tree. When ripe, the pods have a loose brown skin and pulpy fruit which surrounds three to 12 seeds. The pulp is the primary, and often only, ingredient used to create the paste.
Although tamarind paste is often made with only the tamarind pulp, it can be combined with sugar and other spices, such as ginger or cinnamon, to sweeten it or add more flavor. When adding sugar, there should always be two parts of pulp for every part sugar. To make the paste, the pods are first boiled and then sieved in order to separate the pulp from the seeds and the skin. If other ingredients are used, they are mixed in after sieving and then the mixture is boiled again. After boiling, the heat is lowered and the pulp is slow-cooked until it is reduced to a paste form.
Tamarind contains about 12 percent of tartaric acid, which makes the paste tart unless other sweetening spices are added. If the paste is sugared, it should only be used for sweet dishes, like candies or desserts. Otherwise, it is often used as a souring agent for Indian curries and chutneys. The paste is also high in vitamins and calcium.
In addition to curries and chutneys, tamarind paste is used in fruit drinks, marinades, barbecue sauces, Jamaican jerk chicken, Mexican and Thai candies, and is the key ingredient in most Worcestershire sauces. Lemon juice is often suggested as a substitute for tamarind paste. It is not actually an equivalent, however, and will decrease the taste quality of the dish if used.
Tamarind paste is also called tamarind concentrate and can come in block or tub forms. Tub forms contain the thick, soft paste, but block forms are hardened dehydrated paste and need to be mixed with water before becoming usable. Though they appear in different forms, there is no difference in the taste quality of the paste and the concentrate. Tamarind paste is available in Asian, Mexican, or gourmet food stores and can also be purchased online.