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Tamarind (Makahm)

Kasma Loha-unchit, July 26th, 2009

Use Tamarind to Add a Fruity Tart Flavor to Your Cooking

To many people, tamarind (makahm or makamin Thai) is an unknown ingredient. To most seasoned Bay area cooks, the word “tamarind” conjures to mind a tart, dark brown fruit – a beloved and essential souring agent used in many tropical cuisines, from India and southeast Asia to Africa and the Americas.

Tamarind Pods

Tamarind Pods

Held by stringy fibers inside curved beanlike pods, the moist, sticky fruit is protected with a brittle, reddish-brown shell. These fresh pods can frequently be found in specialty produce stores and in Asian and Latino markets.

To use, the flesh is removed from the shell and the fibrous strings and hard seeds are discarded. It can then be chopped up to make chutneys and dipping sauces. More frequently, it is mixed with water, the soft pulp dissolved to make a thick, smooth, dark brown concentrate that is used to add a pleasing fruity tart flavor to soups, salads, braised and stir-fried dishes. The concentrate is also used to make refreshing drinks such as tamarindo, and is frequently added to curries to heighten their flavors and to marinades to flavor as well as tenderize meats.

Compressed Tamarind Package

Compressed Tamarind Package

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

However, not all tamarind is sour. In fact, the fresh tamarind pods found in many Asian markets at this time of year are actually sweet tamarind, some without the slightest hint of sourness. This “best variety” sweet tamarind are not meant for cooking, but for eating fresh by itself as one would fruit. It makes a wonderful, nutritious snack.

At other times of year, Asian markets may carry unripe tamarind. Though brown on the outer surface, the shell and seeds have not fully developed and are not separate from the green flesh. Southeast Asians pickle these immature pods, eat them fresh with a sweet shrimp sauce, or chop and incorporate them into a tamarind chilli sauce for accompanying raw or blanched vegetables, fried fish and grilled meats.
Because of the variation in fresh tamarind pods and their availability, more consistent results can be obtained in cooking by using prepackaged forms. Ready-to-use tamarind concentrate or paste is available in plastic containers. I personally prefer to use the compressed blocks wrapped in clear plastic and labeled as “wet tamarind,” or simply “tamarind,” to make my own tamarind concentrate when I need it.

These blocks are made up purely of the dark brown flesh of sour tamarind extracted from the pods, with the fibrous strings and most of the seeds removed. When I buy one of these blocks, I usually squeeze the package and select one that feels the softest, as it will more likely be fresher, more moist, easier to work with and yields better-tasting tamarind juice. The block should also look a rich dark brown and not black.

Making Tamarind Paste

Making Tamarind Concentrate

To make tamarind juice or concentrate, break off a one-inch chunk of wet tamarind paste and mix with a quarter cup of water, using your fingers to knead and mush the soft part of the fruit so that it melts into the water. Work the tamarind until a brownish fluid the thickness of fruit concentrate results, adding more tamarind paste or water as needed. Gather up the undissolvable pulp and any seeds with your fingers, squeeze out the juice and discard.

Making your own tamarind juice concentrate when you need it ensures a fresher tamarind flavor than pre-mixed concentrates. An added advantage: the tamarind block does not require refrigeration, whereas pre-mixed concentrates do after the containers are open. Store the compressed block well-wrapped in plastic in a cool place in your pantry.

See our website for more information on tamarind (makahm).

This recipe is also available on our website (Spicy Tamarind Tiger Prawns) where it is available with Notes and Pointers.

Spicy Tamarind Tiger Prawns Recipe

  • 1 lb. medium-size tiger prawns
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 2 large shallots, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise 1/8-inch thick
  • 8 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 large dried red chillies, each cut into 2-3 pieces
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2 chopped jalapeño or serrano peppers (do not remove seeds)
  • 1 Tbs. Sriracha hot chilli sauce
  • 1 Tbs. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbs. palm or coconut sugar
  • 1/3 – 1/2 cup tamarind juice the thickness of fruit concentrate, to taste
  • 1 1/2 to 2 Tbs. fish sauce, to taste
  • Lettuce to line serving platter
  • 1 green onion, white part only, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths, then split into thin matchstick-size slivers
  • A few cilantro sprigs

Shell, devein and butterfly the prawns. Place in a bowl and add 1 tsp. of salt and 1/2 cup of water. Mix well to dissolve salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Then drain off the grey water and rinse several times to remove all the salt. Drain well and let sit to warm to room temperature before stir-frying.

Heat the oil in a small skillet for 2-3 minutes. Add the sliced shallots and fry over low to medium heat, stirring occasionally until the pieces are evenly browned and crisped (may take 10-15 minutes). Drain from oil with a fine wire-mesh strainer. Return oil to skillet and fry the garlic over high heat until golden brown. Drain likewise, reserving the oil for stir-frying.

Heat a wok over high heat until its entire surface is hot and smoking. Swirl in 2 Tbs. of the reserved oil to coat the wok surface. Wait a few seconds for it to heat. Then add the dried chilli pieces and fry quickly until they begin to darken. Toss in the chopped onion and fresh peppers and stir-fry until softened and aromatic. Add the Sriracha chilli sauce, soy sauce and palm sugar and season to the desired sourness and saltiness with tamarind and fish sauce. Stir well to blend, heat to a sizzling boil and reduce a minute or two to thicken.

Add the prawns and with frequent stirring, cook over high heat until the sauce is thick and the prawns are cooked to your liking (2-4 minutes). Turn off heat and add the fried shallots and garlic. Toss well.

Transfer to a lettuce-lined serving platter. Garnish top with slivered green onion and cilantro sprigs. Serves 6 with other dishes and rice in a shared family-style meal.

Serves 6 with other dishes and rice in a shared family-style meal.

Kasma's Spicy Tamarind Prawns

Kasma's Spicy Tamarind Prawns

Kasma taught this recipe in her weekend Series Set A (class 2).

There’s many more of Kasma’s Thai recipes on the website.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2009.

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6 Responses to “Tamarind (Makahm)”

  1. Michael Babcock says:

    Radha, I asked Kasma about all of your questions. Sweet tamarind is a different variety.

    She’s unable to talk about Indian Food. For Thai food she recommends using the tamarind that comes in a block; it should be “without seed” or “seedless” and brown or reddish-brown in color, not black. Two brands that she often uses with success are Cock Brand and Dragonfly brand, both from Thailand.

    Even in Thailand, cooks seldom use the whole fruit in their cooking. In the markets you can get the the pulp already separated out from the pods and use it to make tamarind water as she recommends in the article.

  2. Radha says:

    In addition to what I wrote, I use the Indian tamarind block which is blackish brown and hard. I notice the Thai brand is a light brown with slight orangish hue and is soft like a gel pack. Why they are different? Both are sold next to each other in the Indian grocery store, but are so different.

  3. Radha says:

    Which is the correct whole fresh tamarind for curry and is it available in the USA?

    I see red boxes with an orchid on it that says sweet tamarind from Thailand. I assume you eat it like dried fruit and spit out the seed, and that this is not what you use for curry. These are large, fat, with shell perfectly intact.

    Then there are flat tamarind often with broken shells in the Mexican grocery store from Mexico. Sometimes they will have fungus on it or bird feather.

    I read there is even a greenish tint tamarind with with pulp that is too sour. I assume this is too raw for curry?

    Then I found a Thai tamarind from Thailand that is shorter than the sweet one and a bit plump. But it was very dried out.

    I want to get the fresh whole pod for cooking curry, but is it available in the USA and from where and which is the right one?

    I don’t want to use the block because you throw away a lot of pulp contaminated with shell and fiber bits. The pulp is edible. Some of the wet soft blocks I think have preservative in it and I’m not sure if it is juice or whole pulp in those. I want it with pulp.

    • Radha says:

      In addition, the whole tamarind will be smooth along the edges or it comes bulging with seed pushing out of the edges. Does this mean it is over mature and the smooth edges that is fat is the right one? The Mexican ones are flattish compared to the Thai ones that are fatter.

      In regards to the sweet tamarind, is it a totally different variety that is sweet or is it sweet due to being picked at a certain stage? I tried making curry with it but it had no flavor. But eaten on its own it was like a date.

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