The last time I was in India, my Aunt Iysha, cousin Indu, and I traveled to the Western Ghats, a mountainous region on the west coast of Kerala, in search of cardamom. I had eaten and cooked with the spice plenty of times, but I had never seen it growing. My grandfathers on both sides had managed cardamom estates. They passed away before I was born, and I hoped to envision the land they had once owned.
On the second day of our excursion, we toured a spice garden in Kumily with vanilla climbing skyward, fine-leafed papyrus, and rose-colored coffee beans (all pictured above). But it was the sprawling tamarind that enthralled me. The tree’s feathery foliage formed the perfect canopy for a open air nap. Tubby pods dangled from it’s branches. I knew that the fruit hidden inside offered a mouth-puckering bite.
Tamarind is an essential souring agent in Indian cuisine. It brings tang to tamarind chutney, the dark, slightly sweet sauce that often accompanies samosa. In Kerala, it is used to round out the complex flavors of sambar (vegetable stew).
Visit an Indian grocery store, and you’ll likely find tamarind sold in several forms. The whole dried pods have brown skin and look like jumbo beans. They’re often stocked in the produce section. Compressed tamarind, which contains the pulp and seeds, is sold in blocks. I prefer to use tamarind paste or concentrate. It has the most intense flavor.
Cooking with Tamarind
Tamarind paste has a thick, tacky consistency. It should be diluted with water or another liquid before being combined with other ingredients. When cooking sambar, I like to thin it with liquid from the dish, as shown below.
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Susan developed a passion for flavorful food as a child. Under her mother's wing, she learned to prepare everyday Kerala dishes.
In her twenties, Susan moved to Tokyo in search of adventure where she embraced Japanese culinary traditions. There she learned to value individual ingredients and tapped into the power of plating.
Once back in the U.S., Susan earned a Masters Degree in Public Policy. The hypnotic rhythms of the kitchen (mincing, chopping, mixing) drew her to Kendall College in 2005 where she trained as a chef. After a foray in the food industry, she started Cardamom Kitchen. Her mission is to promote all the benefits of home cooking. Susan leads cooking classes, and has taught at Whole Foods Market, the Fearless Food Kitchen, Gilda's Club, Common Threads, Swedish Covenant, farmer's markets and provides private instruction for children and adults. She also hosts a Culinary Tour of Devon Avenue, Chicago's Little India. Susan created and managed the "Kitchen Basics" column for Whole Foods Market.