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Taste
WRITTEN BY MATTHEW AMSTER-BURTON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
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Don't let tamarind's tough exterior fool you. Its inner pulp is a supple staple for everything from curries to summer drinks.
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Pods With Punch
Tamarind takes 'tart' to all kinds of intriguing places

Last summer my friend Adela Santana and her fiancé visited me and my wife in Seattle, and we took them to Uwajimaya, where we often take out-of-town guests when we want to show them why we live in Seattle. Adela, who was raised in Puerto Rico and Mexico, picked out some brown and shriveled-looking tamarind pods, many of them missing bits of their hulls. This is normal, she explained. We took the tamarinds home, and she showed me how to separate the pulp and turn these unattractive fruits into a delicious juice.

Tamarind pods, the fruit of the tropical shade tree Tamarindus indica, look like big, brown fava beans, with a brittle and gently curving pod constricted around the seeds. Tamarind is, in fact, in the bean family. But the seeds of the plant are hard and inedible. The only part of culinary interest is the fleshy brown pulp that surrounds the seeds. It has the tartness of citrus with a satisfying woody undertone, and, like citrus, it is equally at home in savory and sweet foods, as well as drinks.

Two days later, the four of us were on a plane to Bangkok. (We had planned the trip for months, but when I'm in a more deceptive mood I'll hint that we decided to fly off to Thailand because there wasn't enough tamarind for us in Seattle.) After a harrowing taxi ride from the airport, we stopped for lunch at the Methavalai Sorndaeng, a slightly stuffy but inexpensive restaurant popular with nearby government employees. Adela looked at the menu and zoomed right in on Vegetables in Tamarinated Soup. How could we pass this up?

Tamarinated soup turned out to be a vegetable-rich rendition of the Thai curry gaeng som, or sour curry. It's the tamarind that makes it sour, and it is indeed more like a soup than a curry, with a spicy crimson broth full of pestle-mashed chilies and tamarind. Gaeng som paste can be made at home if you have a mortar and pestle, but you can also get the Maesri brand, imported from Thailand and labeled sour-curry paste, online from Issaquah-based Importfood.com. Of all the goodwill gestures one nation can offer another, inexpensive and high-quality curry paste is right up there. Sour-curry paste already contains tamarind, but many cooks add more to their dishes.

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You may have tasted tamarind without realizing it: It's the ingredient that makes Worcestershire sauce tangy, and it has been showing up stealthily on local menus for a long time. Kathy Casey served it at Fullers in 1986 in the form of tamarind-jalapeŇo butter with seared halibut. She also developed the delicious tamarind-strawberry lemonade popular at Cactus restaurants in Madison Park and Kirkland.

Tamarind shows up all over Asia and, therefore, all over the Seattle restaurant scene. Green Papaya, a new Vietnamese restaurant on Capitol Hill, makes a wonderful sweet-and-sour soup of shrimp, fish and vegetables in tamarind broth. A similar Filipino soup is called sinigang; I like the one served at Kusina Filipina on Beacon Hill.

Tamarind figures in most versions of the fiery Indian curry called vindaloo. Fried fish with tamarind glaze is a popular meal in Thailand and a popular special at Chantanee Family Thai Restaurant in Bellevue. At the Malay Satay Hut, my father and I once shared a whole fried skate in tamarind sauce.

If you go to a well-stocked Asian grocery, you will likely see tamarind in several forms. The desiccated pods are sold in the produce section. (Truly fresh tamarind, with its pulp still orange and soft, isn't sold in the United States) These can be further broken down into sweet and tart varieties. Pass over the sweet ones as you would a mild jalapeŇo. It's easier and cheaper, however, to use tamarind in its processed form. At Middle Eastern and Indian groceries this usually means liquid tamarind extract. My jar, which cost $2.99 at The Souk at Pike Place Market, is the delightfully named Tamcon brand, which reminds me of the general in the movie "WarGames" who was always saying, "Take us to Defcon 4."

But my favorite form of tamarind is the block of paste. It is processed, sure, but minimally so: The pulp is stripped from the pods and compressed into a block, usually one pound. No other ingredients are added. A single block, which doesn't cost much over a dollar, is enough to make more than two quarts of delicious tamarind drink or dozens of servings of curry. Tamarind paste is widely available at Asian groceries and keeps indefinitely in the cupboard, or it would if I weren't always cutting off a chunk for one recipe or another, recipes from books such as Kasma Loha-unchit's "Dancing Shrimp" (which explains how to make sour curry) and Smita Chandra's "Cuisines of India."

Only one thing remains to be said: Get out there and start tamarinating.

Matthew Amster-Burton, mamster@mamster.net, is a Seattle free-lance writer. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.


Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

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