For many people, tamarind is the “home” flavor of the foods they love most. The tamarind tree grows all over the tropics and subtropics, and its fruit is used in everything from chutneys and curries, to chili-dusted tamarind candy, to the Tamarindo soft drink.
Most people have already enjoyed tamarind without even realizing it. It’s an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, the fermented condiment first bottled by Lea & Perrins in 1837. Even with that rich history, the fruit is being newly rediscovered by diners eager to follow global food trends with the flavor-forward, sweet-sour punch of tamarind.
Raisin-ish, but more tart
“It tastes a little bit like a tarter version of a raisin,” explains Yia Vang, chef and owner of Twin Cities’ based Union Kitchen. Vang, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, creates cuisine that highlights the ingredients and preparation methods of his family’s Hmong-American traditions. Vang says the Hmong word for “sour” or “tart” is “qaub,” and that many of his dishes have a high “qaub” factor.
“It’s hard to source fresh tamarind here in the Midwest, so we usually use the paste in our kitchen,” Vang says. “It’s the ‘secret ingredient’ in our papaya salad. Because my recipe includes crab or shrimp paste and fish sauce, it can taste a little funky, so it needs something tart and sweet to break through all that. Tamarind gives me the depth I’m looking for.”
Dorking out on tamarind
“I really want to introduce tamarind to the majority culture, so one way I do that is by using it in barbeque sauce,” Vang says. “Everyone understands barbeque sauce. What I’ve found by dorking out on tamarind in the kitchen is that because it’s high in sugar, it caramelizes well. I tried the sauce as an experiment with baby back ribs, and then I realized it actually works very well. A lot of the people who order our ribs don’t know what that flavor is, but they know they like it.”
For those willing to experiment with tamarind and other ingredients from the South Asian culinary canon, Vang has these words of encouragement: “Good food knows no boundaries,” he says.