Tamarind is a important ingredient in Thai cooking, but seeing it called for in a recipe can cause confusion as it comes in many forms at the store. In this article I'll cover everything you need to know about the fruit, including what it is, how to choose, use and store tamarind. Then you'll be ready to confidently use it in pad thai or tamarind shrimp!
If you prefer to see tamarind in action, including how to open and eat whole pods of tamarind, and how to make tamarind paste from pulp, watch this video here! Most of what this article covers is discussed in this video.
Video: Everything You Need to Know About Tamarind
What is Tamarind?
Tamarind (tamarindus indica) is a fruit tree indigenous to tropical Africa, but is now grown and used in tropical regions around the world, including Thailand! It is a common ingredient in Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, as well as in South America.
It's used mostly in savory dishes in Thai cuisine, but it's also used in sweets, most commonly as tamarind candies. In many countries, tamarind is also used to make drinks, and you may have heard of agua de tamarindo from Mexico!
In addition to the edible fruit, the leaves are sometimes used in Thai cuisine in soups and curries, and the lumber of the tamarind tree is also used in woodworking.
What Does Tamarind Taste Like?
Tamarind has a dark brown, sticky pulp, similar to dates, and ranges in taste from very sour to very sweet.
Sweet tamarind is not for cooking, but for eating fresh as snacks. You might have seen whole brown tamarind pods packed in a box at an Asian grocery store labeled as "sweet tamarind," that's the one, give it a try!
To eat snacking tamarind, break off the brittle shell and peel off the veins. Then go ahead and bite off a chunk, and then spit out the hard seeds. (Warning, tamarind seeds are a choking hazard for kids!). It has a rather fibrous pulp, but it can all be eaten. Go easy when snacking on these though, as they're known to have a mild laxative effect!
For cooking, you want sour tamarind because it is one of the main acids used in Thai cooking, aside from lime.
Buying Tamarind for Thai Cooking
Most Asian markets should have at least one type of tamarind you can buy, but the options might be slim unless you're at a Southeast Asian market. You can buy sour cooking tamarind for Thai cooking in two major forms:
- Tamarind pulp, which yields the best flavour but involves some processing at home.
- Tamarind Paste or Concentrate. This is a ready-to-use liquid that is convenient, but not as tasty.
More on these below.
(Note: in my old videos, I used to call liquid tamarind "tamarind juice," but I have moved away from that because there are tamarind drinks on the market labelled as "tamarind juice" which has caused confusion. So I now call it tamarind paste.)
1. Tamarind Pulp
If you've seen a dark brown rectangular block labelled simply as "tamarind," that is it. The tamarind has been seeded and then the pulp gets compacted into a block. You will need to dilute the pulp in hot water and strain it before using, but the result is more flavourful and more tart compared to ready-to-use tamarind, so this is my preferred option. Even today, most Thai people still make tamarind paste for cooking at home in this way.
If you want to give it a go, check out my detailed tutorial on how to make tamarind paste. It's simple, and once made it will last in your fridge for up to 6 months or it will freeze indefinitely, so you won't have to do it every time!
2. Ready-to-Use Tamarind Paste or "Concentrate"
The simplest way is to buy it as a pre-made, ready to use liquid. This product comes in a plastic tub or a glass jar, and is labelled as "tamarind concentrate" or "tamarind paste."
NOTE: "Tamarind concentrate" is a misnomer! It's made by diluting the pulp with water, so it's actually diluted. But what manufacturers mean is that it's more concentrated than what most Thai people would make at home. This is because adding more water makes it much easier to strain, so people tend to make it more diluted when doing it at home.
IMPORTANT: WHAT NOT TO BUY
This is extremely important. Do not buy "tamarind concentrate" from India. This has been the culprit for many failed pad thai! Indian tamarind concentrate is a true concentrate and much more potent than Thai or Vietnamese tamarind. It comes in a tub and is a black, sticky, very sour paste that cannot be used in the same way as Thai tamarind paste.
Also, if you see a product called "tamarind sauce," check the ingredients because, sometimes, it's a pre-mixed sauce for a specific dish. The ingredients should only say tamarind, water, and a preservative; no added sugar, salt, or any other seasonings.
What Brand of Tamarind is Best?
I don't have a specific brand to recommend for premade tamarind paste because I find them to vary so much, even from batch to batch within the same brand. But the good news is I've yet to try one that is "bad." The worst that's happened is it's weak and you'll need to use more of it. In either case your dish won't be "ruined."
Having said that, if I get a choice, I always choose ones from Thailand (as opposed to Vietnam) simply because I take comfort in knowing that if Thai people made it, they're making it for the purpose that I need.
And I will reiterate: do NOT buy tamarind from India for Thai cooking as it's an entirely different ingredient!
As for blocks of tamarind pulp, all of the brands I've tried have been perfectly fine, so get whatever is available to you.
How to Store Tamarind Paste?
Unopened jars of store bought tamarind paste is shelf stable, but needs to be refrigerated after opening. It lasts me at least a few months, but it'll eventually get moldy so watch out for the fuzz! If you're not a frequent user, freeze tamarind paste in ice cubes and thaw them as needed.
If you make homemade tamarind paste, cook it thoroughly before storing to make it last longer. Keep it in airtight containers in the fridge for up to a few months, or freeze indefinitely. Keep homemade tamarind in small jars because every time you spoon some out you introduce bacteria and shortens its shelf life. And always use a clean spoon! See how it's done in my DIY Tamarind Paste Tutorial.
How to Use Tamarind in Cooking?
Tamarind can be used to add a sour taste in any kind of dish: soup, salad, curry, stir fries, dip, etc. And you can go beyond Asian dishes - I have even seen it used in barbecue sauce!
In Thai cuisine, tamarind is one of our two main sour ingredients, the other being lime. However, unlike lime, tamarind can be cooked for a long time and the flavor won't deteriorate so it's preferred in cooked dishes, such as our sour curry or massaman curry.
The sourness of tamarind is also not as sharp as lime because it's got a note of sweetness to it. The acidity is more gentle so a lot of times we use it in combination with lime in order to have a balance of sharp and rounded acidity, such as in green papaya salad.
Substitutes for Tamarind
Tamarind is often used in small amounts to add subtle acidity. In this case, the flavour of the tamarind doesn't come through, and so it can be substituted with any other sour ingredients such as lime juice, lemon juice, vinegar, or even worcestershire sauce (which actually contains tamarind!).
In places where it is a main flavour-contributing ingredient, such as in Pad Thai, there really isn't a good substitute for it. Years ago when tamarind wasn't so widely available, many Thai restaurants in the United States tried to substitute tamarind in pad thai with ketchup and/or vinegar, but it really isn't as good.
Ready to Cook with Tamarind?
Now that you're all equipped with the knowledge about tamarind, start cooking with it with these recipes!