Some produce items, like cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and bananas, always seem to make their way into my shopping basket at the grocery store. Fresh tamarind was once in the opposite category.
I had never picked up the bulbous brown pods until, living abroad, I found myself with an unshakable craving for pad thai and no way to procure it. I made my way to a little international market and there, from in between a pile of chili peppers and purple sweet potatoes, I packed a box of tamarind into my basket for the first time.
My online pad thai recipe instructed me to crack the shells and simmer the pulpy fruit in a little water until it had softened and begun to fall away from the seeds. Though I was apprehensive (the tamarind inside its pods looks more like an insect than anything else) I persevered.
Once the fruit had simmered for an hour, I strained it and stuck in a spoon for a taste. I was shocked. Based on its brown color and murky texture, I had expected the flavor to be muddy and vegetal. To my surprise, it was sweet, with a fresh, tart flavor the likes of which I had only ascribed to citrus fruits. I did eventually make a batch of pad thai, but it took willpower not to simply eat all of the tamarind out of the pot with a spoon.
This caramel, though not a traditional one, pairs tangy tamarind with sugar, salt, and cayenne pepper, a twist on flavors found in tamarind candies from Thailand and Central America. You can definitely use it as you would any caramel sauce, but I also like to use it as a drink concentrate with a little fizzy water. It's great spiked with tequila or smoky mezcal, and I think it would be equally good brushed over a piece of fish for the broiler or the grill.