That more-ish tartness comes courtesy of the fruit from the tamarind tree, native to north Africa. Inside the knobbly, bean-shaped pod is a sticky, sour pulp. While used green in some cultures, it is generally left to ripen, which allows the flavour to mellow and become less acidic, similar in taste to a date (which is why it is also known as an Indian date), but more sour.
Although sold as pods at selected Mexican, Asian and Indian food shops, tamarind is more commonly available in Australia as tamarind pulp, which comes in a block form, or as tamarind concentrate, which is a liquid that is sold in a jar. The pulp, which is also available 'seedless’, needs to be soaked in hot water first, and it’s the strained liquid that is then used in cooking. The concentrate is ready to use, but can also be diluted to taste.
Tamarind features prominently in food from East India to the Middle East and Mexico, used in much the same way as lemon juice to bring a sour element to a dish. In Asia, tamarind is as essential as salt in the Western pantry, appearing in everything from Sri Lankan sour fish curry (ambul thiyal) to Thailand’s classic pad Thai.
But its culinary uses aren’t limited to the savoury realm. In Mexico, tamarind balls are a popular sweet-and-sour snack, and similar versions are enjoyed from Vietnam to Jamaica.
Photography by Brett Stevens.