ON THE SHELF : Tamarind

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The Independent Culture
THOUGH a snip at only 35p for a 200g packet from my local Indian grocer, dried tamarind scores so low on looks that it can sit forlornly on the kitchen shelf for years - or at least since one's last foray into Indian cooking. However, like many Asian ingredients, there's really no substitute for this unique and versatile flavouring.

The tamarind tree, Tamarindus indica - its name means Indian date - is a tropical legume, native to West Africa. I'd love to be able to grow one since the tree is described as fern-like and handsome. The plant is valued for its sharp-tasting fruit, which resemble bulbous broad beans that turn reddish-brown when ripe. The fleshy pods are either used fresh or they are dried and compressed into oblong blocks of brown pulp, confusingly also known as paste although it is unsieved. Dried tamarind pulp/paste keeps almost indefinitely - though clearly the older and drier the pulp the longer it takes to reconstitute it.

Reconstituting is done by steeping the dried pulp in very hot water - allow 2oz/60g to 14 pint/150 ml of water - for at least 30 minutes or until thoroughly softened. Press the mixture through a sieve to make about 4fl oz/120ml of smooth tamarind paste about as thick as single cream. This can be stored, covered, in the fridge for 3-4 days. Commer-cially prepared tamarind paste, sometimes labelled tamarind syrup if it contains sugar, is sold in jars here but on the whole Asian cookery writers do not recommend it since the flavour of freshly prepared paste is superior.

Tamarind paste has a deliciously tart, spicy yet slightly caramel flavour, rather like over-ripe plums. An invaluable ingredient in Indian, Thai and Malaysian cooking, it contributes a sharp-tasting note to a dish where in European cooking we would add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice. The paste also thickens and darkens a sauce without curd-ling it and it thus works well in those based on yoghurt or cream. The distinctive tangy fruitiness of tamarind enhan-ces the flavour of mild or sweet-tasting ingredients such as white fish, shellfish, chicken and lamb. A mixture of tamarind paste and salt rubbed into raw fish or meat before cooking gives a piquant flavour faintly reminiscent of Worcestershire sauce - of which it is an ingredient.

And excellent dish of cod with tamarind sauce slightly adapted from a recipe in Jennifer Brennan's Thai Cooking (Warner Books, £4.99) is made thus: fry 2-3 chopped cloves of garlic in a small pan until just changing colour, stir in 3 tablespoons of prepared tamarind paste (as above) with 1 tablespoon each of soy sauce, nam pla (oriental fish sauce) and dark muscovado sugar with a walnut-sized piece of fresh ginger, finely grated, and 2 chopped spring onions. Simmer for 1-2 minutes then spoon over a 1lb/450g fillet of grilled or baked cod. Grill or bake for 3-4 minutes until heated through then serve with plain rice.

In her exciting new book, Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail (BBC Books, £16.99), Leslie Forbes explains that Indian cooks sometimes use a tamarind- flavoured stock for cooking red-fleshed vegetables such as carrots to complement their natural sweetness. She adds that, "In Gujarat and Bombay tamarind is frequently simmered until syrupy with raw brown sugar and chillies to make a typically sweet and sour dipping sauce, delicious with grilled fish and meat."

TAMARIND AND GINGER SORBET

Leslie Forbes describes this recipe as, "a romantic flavour of the past turned into a fruity sour-sweet sorbet. It is based on a tamarind sherbet prescribed by Unani doctors (although it would not have had alcohol in the original). To serve as a refreshing drink, leave out the cream, add lots of crushed ice and serve, as recommended by an old Hyderabadi doctor, with fresh flower petals floating in it."

Serves 6

2-3in./5-7.5cm piece peeled fresh ginger

8oz /225g jaggery or dark muscovado sugar

4oz /100g tamarind paste

8 green cardamom pods, bruised to reveal the seeds

6fl oz/175ml single cream

4 tablespoons rum

Grate the ginger into a saucepan. Add the sugar, tamarind, cardamom and 1 pint/600ml water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes then set aside overnight or for at least 3 hours. Strain through a sieve, using a wooden spoon to press through most of the tamarind pulp. Whisk in the cream and rum. Freeze until firm in an ice-cream maker, or in a lidded plastic container when it may be necessary to beat the mixture several times as it freezes to break down ice crystals and produce a smooth sorbet.

Geraldene Holt

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