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The Sweet & Sour Flavor Booster You Need to Try

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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.

Today: The best dish-brightener around is sweet and sour—and packaged in a pod.

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fresh tamarind

Along with shelling beans, green beans, chickpeas, and other more surprising members of the family (like jicama), tamarind is a member of the legume family. The tamarind plant is a tree, and its fruit is—as its family name suggests—a legume, but you’re more likely to hear it called a pod. You can eat the fruit when it’s immature and the pod is green, but unless you live in a tropical or semi-tropical area, you’re more likely to find fully mature pods with dry, brittle, brown shells (1, pictured below). The part we eat is the pulp surrounding the seeds, which a has a sweet and sour flavor that's bright and citrusy.

Fresh Tamarind

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You’ll find that recipes either call for tamarind concentrate or tamarind paste. Tamarind concentrate is a thick syrup that comes in a jar and, just as it sounds, is concentrated. Tamarind paste is made by starting with either mature pods or blocks of shelled, pressed tamarinds and then separating the pulp from the seeds and fibers and adding just enough water to make a paste. 

Here's how to make tamarind paste if you're starting with a block: First, soften it by soaking it in lukewarm water. Next, use your hands to start breaking it up, loosening the pulp from the fibers and any lingering seeds (often the blocks will be labeled as deseeded, but you still might find a few stray ones). Then press that mixture through a fine mesh sieve to separate out the pulp and leave the fibers behind. Need more of a visual? Leela Punyaratabandhu, author of Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen walks you through it step-by-step on her blog. If you're beginning with tamarind pods, you'll need to remove the shells (2, above) and separate the pulp from the seeds—often by boiling and/or soaking the internal contents of the pods (3, above) in water—before you get started. Like tamarind concentrate, you can also find tamarind paste in a jar. But, you'll get the best flavor by making it yourself.

You should be able to find the blocks of pressed tamarind in well-stocked grocery stores and international markets, especially Indian, Latin, or Southeast Asian markets. For the pods, check all of the same locations, usually from April through July or so.

More: Here are 8 more things you should be buying from international stores.

Tamarind can be used in a wide variety of dishes, from soups and stews to marinades and sauces (it’s actually an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce). But it’s not just used in savory applications—tamarind can be used in sweets and drinks, as well. And when Yotam Ottolenghi calls something a secret ingredient, well, you'd be smart to start using it, too. Here are 10 ways to get you started using more tamarind paste:

1) Beg, Borrow, and Steal Roast Chicken with Cilantro-Tamarind Sauce
2) Vegan Pad Thai
3) Tuna Caldine
4) Dan Barber's Braised Short Ribs
5) Lentil and Basmati Salad with Tamarind, Coconut, and Cilantro
6) Spinach Sambar
7) Tamarind-Glazed Swordfish with Lime, Cilantro, and Tamarind Sauce
8) Spicy Sesame Pork Soup with Noodles
9) Tamarind Chicken
10) Tangorita (Mango Tamarind Margarita)

Is there a fruit or vegetable you’d like to hear more about? Tell me in the comments! Thanks to former intern Elana Carlson for suggesting this one.

First two photos by Mark Weinberg, final photo by James Ransom

Tags: down and dirty, diagrams, special diets, tropical, tamarind, tamarindo