Ingredient Focus: Tamarind


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This is a part of a series where we discuss a special ingredient and how it can be used in the kitchen.

One of my most confusing culinary experiences as a child was the day that my Mexican friend shared her stash of chicken-shaped lollipops on the playground during recess. I remember feeling slightly disappointed that they weren’t tootsie pops, but also feeling intrigued and delighted. Why were they shaped like mini rotisserie chickens? Why were they covered in spices? And what was the exotic, yet strangely familiar, flavor?

It was tamarind, of course, a flavor that wasn’t completely foreign to me. I was already acquainted with tamarind from eating the Indonesian vegetable soup, sayur asem, where it’s used to make a subtly sour soup base. Never had I had it as a sweet lollipop covered in chili powder and shaped like a chicken (Although 9-year-old me approved of the flavor combination and the presentation).

Tamarind is ubiquitous to Mexican cuisine – you can find candied tamarind, tamarind fruit roll-ups, tamarind-flavored juice, tamarind soda, and of course, tamarind lollipops. Although tamarind originates from Africa, it’s used throughout the world to flavor soups, curries, chutneys, sweets, and sometimes used in natural remedies because of its vitamin C, tartaric acid, and thiamin content. It’s even one of the secret ingredients in Worcestershire sauce.

Because tamarind is used as a spice and condiment, it’s usually sold as a paste, but if you look hard enough you can find it fresh in the produce aisle of your grocery store. For those unfamiliar with this pod-like fruit, it kind of resembles a dry, brown, oversized edamame pod. Underneath the brittle shell is a sticky, reddish-brown pulp and dark brown seeds. People sometimes enjoy it fresh from the pod, but more often than not, the pulp is separated from the seeds and made into a paste. Its sweet and sour flavor adds a unique tartness to dishes like pad thai, sambar, and bobotie.

I’m definitely not above eating chicken-shaped tamarind lollipops as an adult, but I wanted to make a grown-up version with the same flavors. The following is a recipe for chili tamarind jam that can be enjoyed on a bagel with cream cheese, on crackers with honey, or by the spoonful.

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Chili Tamarind Jam (Yield: 5 eight ounce jars)

Ingredients:
4 cups tamarind pods, shelled
6 cups water
4 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons chili powder
6 ounces pectin (optional)*
A pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Shell tamarind pods, removing the hard fibrous bits as you go.
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then remove from heat. Sanitize your jam jars and lids in the hot water to prepare them for canning.
  3. Cook the tamarind pods with 4 cups of water on medium heat, continuously mixing to separate the tamarind paste from the seeds and fibers. Remove the seeds and leftover fibers with a slotted spoon.
  4. Add 2 more cups of water and the sugar, chili powder, and salt. Bring to a rolling boil.
  5. Add pectin and mix continuously for 1 minute. When mixture begins to thicken, remove from heat (If you are not using pectin, allow tamarind jam to simmer for up to an hour until it cooks down into a paste).
  6. Pour immediately into your sanitized jam jars using clean tongs. Place the lids on the jars with the tongs, being careful not to touch the inside of the jar or lid. Allow to cool, then seal.

*Note: Tamarind naturally contains pectin, a thickening agent. You can forego the pectin and the end result will be like chutney. Adding the pectin will give it a jam-like consistency.

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