What Is Tamarind, and How Do I Cook with It?

Updated: Jan. 29, 2020

Tangy and sweet, tamarind is a tropical fruit with complex flavor.

Tamarind’s distinct sour-and-sweet flavor makes it a team player in everything from savory curry to sweet chutney and candy. It’s even a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce! So what actually is this unique fruit?

What Is Tamarind?

It’s a pod-like tree fruit that comes from a tree. The pod is technically a legume, but it’s consumed more like a fruit. Inside each pod are seeds and a sticky, tart pulp. The pulp is the part used in recipes, and it boasts a potent flavor that’s both tangy and sweet.

This tree is native to Africa and can now be found in the Caribbean, Latin America and South Asia. Today, India is the world’s largest producer, and it plays a role in many popular Indian dishes.

How Do You Cook with Tamarind?

You can actually eat fresh tamarind. Once you crack and peel the hard outer shell of the pod, you’ll find a reddish-brown pulp and twig-like veins inside. Remove the veins, and then it’s ready to eat. (Just be careful of the hard seeds in the center.) To prepare the pulp for cooking, steep it in hot water for 30 minutes. You can drain the pulp through a sieve to remove any fibers and seeds.

Tamarind is used in a variety of dishes—it gives a hint of sour to sweet chutneys, it mixes with vinegar, sugar and fish sauce to form the base of pad Thai and it’s also a staple in Indian curry when combined with coconut milk. Learn how to make curry with tamarind. You can also find tamarind balls, a dessert made of tamarind, sugar and spices.

Tamarind is a great way to tenderize meat because of its high acidity, which breaks down tougher cuts. Use it in marinades for tender meat and a hint of sour flavor. Here’s how to craft a marinade from scratch.

What Can I Use Instead of Tamarind?

While nothing can mimic tamarind’s unique flavor, you can try substituting fresh lime juice, a mix of sugar and vinegar or Worcestershire sauce, depending on your recipe.

Where Do You Buy It?

Look for a softened paste rather than fresh pods. You can find tamarind in some Asian food stores, most Indian food stores or on Amazon. You can also find tamarind candy in Mexican grocery stores, along with these other popular items.

Now that you know all about tamarind, check out some of the other tartest foods in the world.