As a rule, I have to say that I avoid Walmart’s food section, even though my husband has encouraged me to visit the market where the lowest price is the law. They do have fresh vegetables, and even meat now, but somehow I feel like the food products that are there must have some kind of seedy underbelly. Maybe the beef is actually horse. Maybe the chickens are actually sparrows on steroids. I wouldn’t put it past them.
But as I was walking through the “veggie” section (probably all genetically modified crabgrass) looking for the photoshop one day, I happened to pass a box of giant brown bean pods labelled “tamarind.” At first I didn’t even make the connection that they were the source of the “tamarind beef,” dish we order at least once a month from the Thai take-out restaurant around the corner, having picked them up purely for the challenge of learning how to prepare them. I soon learned that my culture might be one of the few in the world that doesn’t understand what to do with them, and that we’ve always been missing out on the fun of preparing them. Here is what they looked like in the box:
As I mentioned, I bought tamarind in the form of pods, but apparently many buy them in a pulpy block where the external pods have already been removed. This is a bit of a shame, because the pods feel kind of neat, but I guess if you’re used to them you’d rather have someone else get rid of them. They’re kind of like a cross between an egg and a peanut shell, so they’re easy to crack quickly, exposing the rich dark brown pulpy seeds inside. Here is a shot of the pods:
The seeds are contained by a fibrous set of strands that also must be removed. Here are what those look like:
The remaining innards need to be soaked in warm water for 15 or 20 minutes, whether you buy them in a block or in the pods, and then the fun begins. I drained about half of the water off (concerned that I might water down the goodness of it all) and then squashed the pulp away from the seeds with my fingers, throwing the seeds out. Welcome back to kindergarten and fingerpaints, grade two and mud pies. This process was somehow very therapeutic. I learned how to massage and manipulate my tamarind here.
By the time I was finished I had a lumpy, goopy mess of tamarind pulp which was to form the basis of all future tamarind recipes. I chose to try two – the first was for a “Gitatini,” which was a ginger tamarind martini, recipe here:
Gitatini (makes 6 drinks, I only made ¼ of it)
- 4 cups tamarind extract
- 12 cardamom pods (I didn’t have cardamom, but don’t think it would have brought this into the winner’s circle for us)
- 1/4 tsp dried ginger powder
- 4 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 cups vodka
- Ice cubes
I thought it would be fun to see the look on my husband’s face when I greeted him with an experimental martini, but my efforts were completely wasted, although my husband wasn’t. He complained about having to drink hard alcohol on a weeknight (I’m sure one of my readers would be willing to volunteer?), and when I made him taste a sip, he said it was too strong and that the whole thing tasted disgusting anyway. I couldn’t disagree – I should have pureed the pulp first, even though I did try to strain it, and also I’m not a fan of vodka, only because I was a huge fan of it when I was younger, if you know what I mean. The Gitatini was quickly introduced to the sink and we each happily cracked open a beer.
Tamarind Martini Rating: Three gags
The second recipe I chose was a much bigger success. I made “Grilled Mahi Mahi with Tamarind Glaze,” although I used cod because it was available. This time I pureed everything together in my food processor. Here are the ingredients:
Grilled Mahi Mahi with Tamarind Glaze
- 1/2 cup tamarind pulp (from a pliable block)
- 1 cup boiling-hot water
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon packed palm or dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- 10 (1- to 1 1/2-inch-thick) pieces mahimahi fillet with skin (6 oz each) (I used cod)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
It tasted delicious – it was extremely flavourful, blending sweet and tart flavours in a beautiful balance. It made plain whitefish much more interesting as well as adding significant health benefits (see nutritional info below). My husband didn’t openly compliment it at the time, since usually his highest praise goes something like, “yeah, it’s good,” but there were no complaints, and he also smeared the sauce all over the green beans I served with it. He bragged to his friend today (the following day) that we eat pretty healthy but that it’s tolerable because I use good recipes to dress up fish, and he mentioned the tamarind fish as an example. All very good signs.
Overall Impression of Tamarind: A great new addition to my cooking repertoire. It was fun to make, and could become very versatile. I feel out of the loop for not having prepared it before. An exceptional companion for grilled fish.
Nutritional Benefits: High in fibre assisting with digestive health. Helps bind to toxins in food protecting the colon mucus membrane from cancer causing chemicals. Rich in tartaric acid, which is a powerful antioxidant. Good source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Iron is essential for red blood cell production. (Thanks to this website for ref)
Other Interesting Facts: Indigenous to Africa, but seems to grow everywhere warm. South Asia and Mexico are its largest consumers, but it’s eaten by many cultures around the world. If you don’t believe me, check out Wikipedia. There are a great number of medicinal uses for tamarind – again, check out Wikipedia.
Rating – Whitefish with tamarind glaze: 3 Yums. Will make it again as a quick way to dress up boring fish.