Making Tamarind Liquid
To extract the delicious sweet and tangy essence of this dark brown fruit, pull a lump of tamarind pulp from a block of minimally processed tamarind, imported from Thailand in cellophane-wrapped 3-inch blocks and often labeled "wet tamarind." You can also use the flesh of ripe tamarind pods, available seasonally in Asian, Mexican, and Caribbean markets and many supermarket produce sections. I prefer the block, since I can keep it handy on my pantry shelf, like raisins, for months. I like to make up a batch once a week so that I can reach for it as easily as fish sauce or sugar, but you can also make up only what you need as you cook. To make tamarind liquid, measure out about 1/3 cup of tamarind pulp from a block, or 1/2 cup pulp from peeled, ripe tamarind pods. Place in a small bowl with 1 cup of warm water, and let it soften, squeezing and mashing it now and then to help it dissolve. Hands are best but a big spoon will also work. After 15 minutes or so, pour the contents of the bowl through a fine-mesh strainer, and then work the remaining goo against the strainer with the back of a big spoon, pressing it onto the mesh to separate the rich brown tamarind purée from the assorted seeds, hulls, and twigs. Coax out what you can in a minute's time, about 1 cup, scraping the outside of the strainer to catch all the good stuff, and then discard what is left behind in the strainer. Transfer the tamarind liquid to a jar and refrigerate for up to 1 week. It sharpens with time, so taste it right away to get a baseline flavor. Then you can add sugar by the teaspoon to bring back the sweet-tart balance as needed after a few days.
The standard Thai substitute for tamarind is an equal amount of white vinegar or freshly squeezed lime juice. This lacks the sweetness and depth but gives the desired tang. I find Indian-style tamarind chutney, a prepared condiment available in Asian markets and many supermarkets, a very good substitute for tamarind liquid. Its standard seasonings of cumin and chilies are so common in Thai cooking that they blend beautifully with Thai dishes. I often substitute the following as well: Stir together equal parts of vinegar or freshly squeezed lime juice, sugar, and soy sauce, say 1 tablespoon of each to replace 3 tablespoons of tamarind liquid. This makes for sweet and tangy flavor and rich color, to be used at once in a given recipe.
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