Tamarind tastes like a prune sucking a lemon. Or like a date that has hit the sherry vinegar. It shares with both fruit a rich mix of vinous and leathery flavours, delivered with a double punch of sweet and sour. But it differs by being a legume, not a drupe (a fleshy fruit clinging to a central stone). Inside the brittle, ginger-coloured pods sits a knobbly, red-brown sausage of dry pulp, with strings that run its length, like a dolls’-house salami.
Pull off the strings and start chewing, and you might think that nature has created the sweet of your dreams. Until, like the nightmare of crumbling teeth, you feel something rattle in your mouth; the black seeds embedded in tamarind flesh are, in weight, size and enamel-like smoothness, remarkably similar to incisors.
Because its beans are so fiddly, most tamarind is sold in blocks or paste. With the blocks, you break off a chunk and soak it in water, giving it a good muddle before straining and discarding the solids. Muddling by hand has all the hairy stickiness of cleaning out a shower plug. Nonetheless, some cooks believe it achieves the best flavour.
Paste is the lazy option, but the trade-off is an inferior flavour. Either way, once you have your tamarind liquid, use it to give pad Thai a moreish hint of sourness, or add sugar and water to taste and serve over plenty of ice for a Mexican agua fresca. Brits will be most familiar with tamarind as the key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. But why stop there? Tamarind water mixed with dates, salt, chilli and cumin will make a dark and complex chutney to grace a bhel puri or to use as a dip for hot, crisp samosas.•