Tamarind is new to me. Unknowingly, I had it many times in Thai and Indonesian food (and Bloody Mary's -- it's a component in Worcestershire sauce), but its role is subtle. What did it contribute? I decided to investigate. I bought raw tamarind pods in the produce section, a liquid tamarind syrup from the Caspian Market, and a seeded gummy block at the "world foods" section of Cub Foods. I am a kinesthetic learner, I must learn by doing. In this case, learn by cooking.
As part of my reckless-spending-on-things-I-can't-afford week, I purchased some used cookbooks recently: The Korean Kitchen, George Lang's Cuisine of Hungary, and The Around the World Cookbook. The Around the World Cookbook was the hardest sell. I don't like general, all-purpose cookbooks. I have lots of topical cookbooks and regional or national cookbooks, but a book on THE WHOLE WORLD'S CUISINE? I looked hard. I read specific recipes. I perused the index. A Thai recipe for pork satay caught my eye: peanuts (peanut butter), pork and tamarind. All ingredients I had at home. I spent the thirteen dollars for an opportunity to experiment with tamarind, and provide an excuse to add to my cookbook collection.
The amount of curry (2 tablespoons of powder and another of paste for 4 servings) was too much for the Mini Chef's seven year-old palate, so I cut it down to a third and boosted both the coconut milk and peanut butter. A lesson from cooking with peanut butter - don't overcook it. While marinating the meat, I prepared the coconut milk and peanut butter sauce. The sauce needlessly spent more than half an hour on the stove during which several tablespoons of oil from the peanut butter and coconut milk separated. Cook recipes two or three times to avoid these timing issues!
My adjustments to the curry worked well for the Mini Chef, but left me unsatisfied. She got a Thai kid's meal: chunks of peanut buttery pork on a stick with basmati rice for dinner. But I hadn't resolved my question -- what role does tamarind play in cooking? I bought a can of an uncarbonated tamarind drink just to get the unadulterated taste -- it's essentially tamarind iced tea. I can imagine how the savory, tanginess would appeal on a hot humid Thai day far more than a syrupy, fizzy Coke.
Tamarind is not a show-stopper ingredient. It adds depth of taste, but not a strong taste by itself. I adore figs. The tamarind juice and gummy blocks remind me of them. Initially, I thought satay had not been the ideal vehicle for exploring tamarind, but as a supporting actor, it have been as appropriate as any recipe.
Below is a Pork Satay recipe similar to the one in the world cuisine cookbook (without the small kid adjustments). The recipe has two components, the marinade and the dipping sauce.
2 Tablespoons Curry powder
1 Teaspoon Turmeric
1 Tablespoon Brown sugar
1 Tablespoon Fish sauce (nam pla)
2 Tablespoons Lime juice
1 Tablespoon Vegetable oil
1/4 Cup Unsweetened coconut milk
1 Pound Boneless pork loin - cut into 3" long x 1" wide- 1/4-inch-thick strips
24 8-in bamboo skewers - soaked in water for 1 hour
Peanut Dipping Sauce
1 Tablespoon Tamarind*
1 Tablespoon Sugar
2-3 Tablespoons Peanut butter
3/4 Cup Unsweetened coconut milk
1 Tablespoon Red curry paste
*If you are using a gummy block of tamarind, cut off about a 3/4 " cube and soften/dissolve it in a few ounces of hot water before adding to the sauce.
- In a medium sized bowl, mix the marinade ingredients.
- Cut the pork into 1/4-inch thick, rectangular slices approximately 2-3" x 1"
- Coat the pork with the marinade and set aside for at least 20 minutes.
- In a small sauce pan (1 qt) add the red curry paste and slowly mix in the coconut milk.
- Heat on medium low while incorporating the peanut butter, sugar and tamarind (see comment above about overcooking sauce).
- Thread the marinated meat through the skewers. Roughly three chunks per skewer.
- On a hot grill, or medium high corrugated pan cook the pork approximately two minutes per side.
- Serve with basmati or jasmine rice and cucumber salad.