September 21, 2017
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Tamarind’s Sweet and Sour Two-Step
tamarind

Tamarind is highly versatile and used throughout the world. But seriously, how do you cook with it?

Even though you will find tamarind in recipes originating in five of the seven continents of the world (Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and South America), it is still a head-scratcher in the United States—a rare and oftentimes puzzling ingredient that is confined to the realm of Southeast Asian and Mexican cooking only. But truth be told, tamarind is far more common than you might imagine. For one, it’s lingering in your refrigerator in a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. Perhaps it’s the look of the fruit that’s to blame: a brown, brittle pod that resembles a long bean encasing a soft, sticky, toffee-colored pulp. Or the fact that tamarind is sold in many forms: a dark black liquid concentrate; blocks of cleaned pulp labeled simply “dry” and “wet.” With all these different forms of the same fruit, it’s no wonder there’s a cloud of mystery surrounding this ingredient.

In Asian cooking, tamarind is treated just like lemons are in Western cuisine—for its ability to introduce a sour taste to food. In some African countries, tamarind pulp is added to cereal at breakfast. In India, the leaves are used as a flavoring agent in dals; the fruit is added to stews and curries, as well as certain herb condiments, in South Asian cuisine. Meanwhile, in Mexican cuisine, you’ll see it in used in sweetened drinks, desserts, and meat marinades. Besides the fruit, the seeds are softened by roasting them and are either eaten whole or ground to a powder.

So where and how to buy tamarind? As mentioned, this can be a little tricky. Most Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican grocery stores will carry tamarind as the whole fruit, in blocks, a paste, or as a concentrate. I recommend skipping the concentrates, as they don’t taste as good and usually have a molasses-like flavor. The blocks come in two forms, a dried version and a wet version, and they only need to be soaked in hot water for a short while to soften the pulp before they can be extracted and then strained through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any fibrous materials and seeds.

The extracted pulp can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week. The paste is a convenient option because the pulp is already extracted for you and you can scoop out as much as you need. You’ll also notice a few brands labeling their tamarind a “Mexican sweet variety” or an “Asian sour variety”—there’s a simple explanation for this, and it refers to the stage at which the fruit was picked from the tree. The fruit gets sweeter and less sour as it ages on the tree.

The sweet and sour taste of tamarind makes it a highly versatile ingredient for use in both savory and sweet recipes. Tamarind pairs well with spicy and hot flavors and earthy sweeteners like brown sugar, Muscovado, jaggery, honey, and maple syrup.

Ingredients

  • Tamarind Glaze
  • 1 cup packed tamarind
  • 1½ cups boiling water
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon chipotle
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup packed brown sugar
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • Kosher salt
  • Wings
  • 32 ounces chicken wings, split at the joints, tips removed
  • ⅓ cup tempura flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Olive oil spray
  • Garnish
  • 1 Thai chile pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon thinly sliced chives

What makes these wings so special is the use of tamarind in the glaze—which contributes a sweet, sour, and fruity flavor, with a little kick of heat from the chile. And for that extra edge of crispiness, the wings are air-dried in the refrigerator overnight and then tossed in tempura flour before going into the oven.

  1. Prepare the tamarind glaze by adding the boiling water to the tamarind in a small heatproof bowl. Allow to sit covered for at least 1 hour to come to room temperature. Once the tamarind pulp is soft, press the fruit gently, using a potato masher or large spoon to release the pulp, then pass the liquid through a fine-mesh sieve and press the pulp using a large spoon to extract as much pulp as possible. Discard the solids left behind and reserve the pulp in a container. The tamarind pulp can be prepared a day ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.
  2. To prepare the glaze, melt the butter in a medium saucepan on medium-high heat. Once the butter is bubbling, add all the ingredients from the ginger to the black pepper and cook for about 30 seconds with constant stirring, till you just start to smell the aroma of the spices. Stir in the tamarind pulp, sugar, and vinegar and bring the contents of the pan to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt. Remove from heat and transfer to a container. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 weeks in an airtight container.
  3. To prepare the wings, pat the wings dry with clean paper towels and leave them overnight in the refrigerator in a dish uncovered. The next day, place a wire rack at midlevel and preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray the surface with the olive oil.
  4. Place the flour, baking powder, cayenne, and salt in a gallon zip-top bag, seal, and shake to mix. Working in batches, add 4 to 6 pieces of chicken at a time, seal the bag, and shake the contents to coat the pieces evenly. Dust the chicken gently to remove any excess flour and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Spray the chicken on the sheet with the olive oil. Place the baking sheet with the chicken in the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes. Then remove the sheet and flip the chicken and cook for an additional 20 minutes. The chicken should be crispy and golden brown on each side when done. Transfer the hot pieces to a large bowl, add ½ cup of the sauce to the wings and toss to coat evenly. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the sliced chiles and chives. Serve immediately with extra sauce on the side. Wings are best eaten hot, as soon as they are prepared.

Nik Sharma

Nik Sharma is an award-winning freelance food writer and photographer. He also writes a recipe-based food column for the San Francisco Chronicle called A Brown Kitchen and is also the author of the blog A Brown Table. He is currently working on his first cookbook, Season (Chronicle Books), which will be published in fall 2018. He lives in Oakland, California.

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