What Is Tamarind and How Do You Use It?

Spoiler: You've probably eaten it.

Tamarind in a wooden basket on the table
Photo: Narong KHUEANKAEW / Getty Images

You'll find tamarind in curries, pad thai, and (surprise!) Worcestershire sauce. But maybe you've only ever seen it in the form of tamarind sauce on an Indian restaurant menu. Here's what you need to know about eating this underrated ingredient.

What Is Tamarind?

The tamarind tree is native to Asia and Africa, but it also grows in tropical climates around the world. It produces pods of fruit that taste sweet and sour when ripe and even more sour when unripe or dried.

India and Thailand produce the most tamarind, and it holds a prominent place in their cooking. But it's a staple ingredient in other Asian cuisines, too. You'll also find it in African and Middle Eastern cooking.

Tamarind trees grow in the Western Hemisphere, as well, with Mexico being the biggest producer. Tamarind candies and agua de tamarindo, or tamarind water, are popular in Mexico.

What Does Tamarind Taste Like?

To approximate the sweetness and tang tamarind brings to recipes, cooks sometimes substitute equal parts brown sugar and lime or lemon juice. But there's more to its flavor: Notes of caramel and molasses give tamarind more complexity, and its acidity is somewhat milder than that of lemon and lime and lacks the hints of bitterness found in citrus.

How to Use Tamarind

Tamarind can take savory or sweet recipes up a notch. If you're new to cooking with this tangy fruit, our Tamarind Sauce Fish Curry and Tamarind Agua Fresca show off its flavor. Authentic Pad Thai is also a nice introduction that calls for just a couple of tablespoons of tamarind paste.

How to Buy Tamarind

You can find tamarind at Asian, Latin, and Middle Eastern markets. The fruit comes in several forms: powder, paste, concentrate, and in a plastic-wrapped block. Sometimes, tamarind paste and concentrate refer to the same product. Concentrates, however, tend to be more watered down than pastes. A block (aka tamarind pulp) takes more TLC than ready-to-use powder and paste because you have to soak, mash, and strain the portion you're cooking with first. Once you've done that, you're left with a paste-like product.

Ready to cook with it? Check out our collection of more than 70 tamarind recipes.

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