Like most Indians, I have a long history with tamarind (imli in Hindi, tetul in Bengali). As kids my friends and I would pick the pods right off the trees and eat the mouth-puckering contents, straining the hulls and seeds out with our teeth, till our lips burned and our stomachs hurt. When not eating it off the trees tamarind candy, coated in chilli powder and about as addictive as crack, was the next best thing. Then there were and are the myriad pleasures of tamarind chutney, sour-sweet-spicy, as a dipping sauce for samosas and pakoras, in chaat, over chhole etc. Here in Babylon there are no tamarind trees (my kids instead go berry picking and to apple orchards). You can get tamarind pods in Asian markets but it’s not quite the same eating them straight out of the packaging.
You can, however, make very good tamarind chutney from them. If you can’t find tamarind pods a very good alternative is the tamarind sold in block form in most Asian markets—a big advantage of the blocks over the admittedly superior fresh pods is that they will last for approximately eternity in your refrigerator. (What is not a good alternative is the vile tamarind concentrate—there is just no good reason to use this.) And, of course, chutney is not the only thing you can use tamarind for: it is also used as an ingredient in a lot of Indian cooking: as a souring agent, in drinks, in pickles and so on. I’m not sure what its nutritional virtues are but I’m sure they’re legion.
What I have today is a very simple recipe for tamarind chutney which will keep a long time in your refrigerator and for which you will be able to find many uses. This is not my recipe; it is a basic tamarind chutney: the proportions will vary and a thing or two will get added or dropped by different cooks, but this is your basic, communally owned recipe for tamarind chutney.
- 4 ounces of tamarind from a block
- 1.5 cups of water just off the boil
- 1 cup sugar
- Salt to taste
- 1/2 tspn hot chilli powder
- 1/2 tspn freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 tspn roasted and ground cumin seeds
- 1/2 tspn ginger powder
- Soak the tamarind in the hot water for about an hour.
- While the tamarind is soaking, place the cumin seeds in a skillet over medium heat and roast till they just begin to darken and become aromatic. Cool and grind coarsely.
- After the tamarind has softened considerably use your fingers to pulp it as thoroughly as you can. Pick out the hard seeds and as many of the hulls as you can as you go. Then with a potato masher squash the pulp further, stir it all and strain the slurry into another bowl. Push down on the pulp in the strainer to extract as much of the pulp as you can.
- Taste the slurry to get a sense of how much sugar you want to add. Add it bit by bit and stop when you have it sweet enough for your taste (you might go higher than my 1 cup).
- Add the salt and taste.
- Now add the red chilli powder and taste. My guess is that at this point you’ll be happy enough with it to stop here, but keep going.
- Add the pepper and taste.
- Add the ground cumin and taste.
- Add the ginger powder and taste.
- Pour it into a clean jar and refrigerate. Stir before each use.
- You can find ginger powder in Indian groceries. It’s not entirely essential but will add a nice flavour. If it’s the only ingredient you don’t have, don’t let that stop you.
- Do use the roasted cumin though. And resist the temptation to skip the roasting step. As this is not being cooked you need the cumin roasted to release its aromas.
- How sweet or hot you make it is up to you—I like to keep the sweet, sour and hot notes in balance.
- I have a recipe for a specific use coming soon, but your imagination’s the limit for use.