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Sweet, sour, strip mall

Like many things of unassuming appearance and surprising worth, I first found tamarind in a strip mall.

I was nineteen, a newly minted college freshman and a recent arrival to California, when a friend proposed dinner at Amber India, a well-regarded restaurant in nearby Mountain View. My palate was then untested by tandoors, chutneys, vindaloos, and the slow rumble of Indian spices, and needless to say, I did not expect to make their exotic acquaintance under a neon sign in a slab of shopping center on El Camino Real. You can well imagine my surprise when, at that table on the old King’s Highway, I lifted to my lips a forkful of aloo chat, cold cubes of cooked potato folded with cucumber, banana, and dark, shiny tamarind, a soft, saucy mouthful more transportive than any loud, glaring street outside. The old proverb may proffer that the best things in life are free, but that night I decided instead that the best things in this life—or some of them, anyway—are in strip malls. Old adages are nice, but they have nothing on the pulp-filled, pod-like fruit of the tamarind tree.

In the eight or so years since that evening on El Camino, I have learned, of course, that tamarind isn’t native to roadside shopping centers, or even to India. Slow-growing, long-lived, and impressive in stature, the tamarind tree originally hails from east Africa, but it has long since taken root in tropical Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Indies, the Pacific Islands, and my kitchen, where it thrives despite the arid linoleum environment. Tangy, fruity, and sweetly sour, concentrated tamarind pulp is a natural in pad Thai or spooned into yogurt, and I’ve long suspected—but have not yet tested—its prowess in the realm of barbeque. It can be a condiment, glaze, dressing, or dip, and according to Brandon, it makes a mean sauce when spun together with roasted garlic, balsamic vinegar, lime juice, cilantro, and a salty dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano. But as of late, I’ve been slurping it down in a softly spicy soup with chickpeas and chard.

Tamarind’s delicate, high-pitched tang makes it a delicious compliment to mild, meaty chickpeas and a lucky foil to the flavor of chard, low and loamy, melted into slack, stewy ribbons. Filled out with herbs, tomato, and fragrant, toasty spices, this is a soup tailor-made for a chilly, drizzly day. I’ve been toting it to work almost daily, actually, as a warming noontime reprieve from the gray Seattle winter. If you listen hard, you’ll hear me, I’m sure, scraping the bowl, each spoon-stroke loud enough to turn heads all the way down in a strip mall in Mountain View.

Tamarind Soup with Chickpeas, Chard, and Spices
Adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Weeknight Kitchen newsletter

This soup unites an unlikely combination of ingredients from Italy to India, and it does so almost seamlessly. It takes a couple of hours to prepare and cook, but it requires no fancy techniques or undue attention, and it tastes even better after a day or two or four. It makes an ideal do-ahead lunch or dinner and a perfect no-brainer project for a Sunday afternoon. A single batch is quite large, so plan to refrigerate half and freeze the rest for later use.

Good-tasting olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, coarsely chopped
3 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/3-inch-thick half moons
5 large leaves Swiss chard, ribs removed, coarsely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
½ cup tightly packed cilantro leaves, minced
½ cup tightly packed basil leaves, minced
1 generous Tbs ground cumin
1 generous Tbs spicy curry powder
2 Tbs sweet paprika
2 Tbs dry basil
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
3 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
3 Tbs tamarind concentrate
1 Tbs packed brown sugar
2 cups vegetable broth
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Dried red chile or crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Film the bottom of a large (8-12 quart) pot with olive oil, and place it over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the onions, zucchini, chard, and generous dashes of salt and pepper. Cook for 8 minutes, stirring often. Add the garlic, herbs, and spices, stirring to mix. Cook for another minute or two.

Stir in the tomatoes, chickpeas, vinegar, tamarind, brown sugar, and broth, and add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring the soup just to a boil, and reduce the heat to keep it at an even simmer. Cook for about 1 hour, partially covered, adding water if necessary.

As the soup cooks, taste it for seasoning. If you like, add a bit more tamarind or salt, or drop in a dried red chile or a pinch of red pepper flakes. When the vegetables are very tender, remove the soup from the heat, and allow it to cool for about an hour. Purée half of it in a food processor, and stir it back into the pot. When you are ready to serve the soup, reheat it gently.

Yield: Depending on serving size, 8-12 servings


Anonymous Ivonne said...


Isn't it funny how we remember the moments we discover a well-loved food!

This is a wonderful post and the recipe looks incredible. Thank you for sharing!

9:56 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Nancy said...

Hi Molly,

I'm Nancy... and apparently, we were at the Farm at the same time!
I know exactly what little strip mall you're referring to in this post. This all brought such a big smile to my face. :)

My husband (c/o '01) and I just returned here recently for his graduate studies.

The food on campus has undergone MAJOR changes. The undergrads these days are eating gourmet food compared to what students had to endure before the turn of the millenium.

Anyway, thank you for sharing your passion for food with us through this site! It's a lovely site, and in my humble opinion, very deserving of the accolades it's received. ;) I enjoy your style of writing.

The tamarind recipe you shared sounds delicious. The sweet spiciness of tamarind is addicting... and as a kid, I used to sneak to the little Asian market behind my parents' house and buy tamarind balls as treats for myself (since my mother rarely bought sweets for the household). They're scrumptious, if it's a fresh batch. yum yum.

I've babbled enough...


~ Nancy

11:16 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous bea at La Tartine Gourmande said...

Was very nice to read how you got to discover Tamarind. In view of the list of ingredients, it must be a great comfort food to have. And as you said, probably even better the second and third day, and super convenient too, eh? When is dinner ready? 5 mns only! I love those deals once in a while!

11:05 AM, February 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, Brandon's idea for a sauce sounds like a wonderful idea! However, I do believe he would put more then a dusting of parmigiano reggiano in there....perhaps multiple large heaping spoonfuls?


3:37 PM, February 02, 2006  
Anonymous gerald said...

Tamarind is also a staple of Filipino cuisine - particularly in Sinigang, a tamarind-based soup usually served with head-on shrimp and a lot of different vegetables.

When I worked in Santa Clara I used to eat on El Camino all the time! It's one of the best places in the whole Bay to get Korean and South Indian food.

3:50 PM, February 02, 2006  
Anonymous gerald said...

(Go Bears!)


3:55 PM, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Mmmm... I, too, have spent time dining in obscure spots in El Camino strip malls, and still hanker after a few memorable dishes from my time spent there. Now I'm living in a different strip-mall suburb, but sadly not finding the same gems that are nestled into the South Bay.

Guess I'll have to make some soup!

8:47 PM, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Shana said...

are you using dried tamarind, or tamarind paste?

11:21 AM, February 03, 2006  
Anonymous Rorie said...

Ooh, I've eaten there, too! Beautiful description of Tamarind BTW ...

2:00 PM, February 04, 2006  
Blogger lucette said...

I made this soup last night, substituting a few things as necessary (kale for chard, for instance), and it was wonderful. Also the occasion for the inaugural use of my new immersion blender!

7:38 AM, February 05, 2006  
Blogger Genevieve said...

mmm...i love that fanciful blend of ingredients, esp. tossing in brown sugar and paprika. i should add tamarind to my must-have list of stock ingredients.

11:38 AM, February 05, 2006  
Anonymous Embla said...

The only tamarind I've had is the candied type.. sweet and sour and rolled in sugar. Mmm.. I have to admit that this is one ingredient I was not expecting anyone to ever blog about. The recipe sounds so delicious, though. :)

11:45 AM, February 05, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Ivonne, thank you! I know - I remember that aloo chat as though it were yesterday, but sadly, it wasn't. I could go for a few forkfuls of that stuff right this minute...

Nancy, yes, we must have been at the Farm - a.k.a. Stanford, for the uninitiated - at the same time! Very glad to meet you. I was in the class of 2001, HumBio major and French minor, with lots of extracurricular Indian food on the side. I hope that you and your husband are making plenty of trips down El Camino - or maybe not, given the new gourmet spirit on campus! Sounds pretty promising! And speaking of promising, I'll have to look into these tamarind balls you mention. I've never seen them - or maybe it's just that I've never known what they were. Thank you for the heads-up! And please give the Farm my best.

Bea, I could eat the same meal for days in a row, so I well understand your love for a delicious, ready-made (and homemade) dinner! In fact, my love for repetitive eating makes this whole blogging thing a bit tough from time to time...

Well, Wonderfully Food Obsessed New YorkER, you certainly are tricky, aren't you? I'm ashamed to say that you had me fooled for a minute there, mon cheri. But yes, yes, you're right. You would use more than a dusting, wouldn't you? Damn me and my poetic license! I know how you feel about your Reggiano...

Gerald, that Filipino soup sounds wonderful! Do you have a recipe, per chance, or a formula you might share? I'd be ever so grateful. And about this Bears business, I have one thing to say: Go Cardinal. Ahem.

Jennifer, I'm sure that Novato must have some hidden treasures - and maybe even treasures containing tamarind! If not, at least SF, the South Bay, and Berkeley (ahh, Breads of India!) aren't too far away...

Shana, this recipe uses tamarind concentrate - the light brown, soupy, slightly lumpy liquid that comes in cans or tubs. It's not the dark brown, translucent block of dried tamarind that comes wrapped in plastic. This
is similar to what I used. Hope that helps...

Thank you, Rorie!

Lucette, I'm so glad to hear that you made the soup, and that it earned a rating of "wonderful" too. It's not so pretty, color-wise, I know, but I think the flavor makes up for that pretty handily! And congratulations on your new immersion blender. You two will have a long, happy life together, I predict...

Genevieve, yes, get yourself some tamarind concentrate! It keeps in the fridge for about a year, and it's awfully fun to play with.

Embla, that candied tamarind sounds intriguing. The blogosphere could always use a little more sweet and sour, don't you think?

6:10 PM, February 05, 2006  
Anonymous kayenne said...

whoever gerald is, i simply love him for mentioning Sinigang, the filipino sour broth soup. there are different varieties. most popular ones use either of the following:

- medium to large shrimps
- pork belly
- milkfish (bangus)
- fish head (ex. pink salmon)

with variations in complementary flavours include the addition of the following into the basic stock:

- miso
- finger chilies
- taro root

i'd be glad to share with you a few recipes if gerald still hasn't. just let me know. =D

2:19 AM, February 06, 2006  
Anonymous carin said...

Hi Molly!

I'm pretty new here. I did your "Chocolate Featherweight Cookies with Walnuts and Cocoa Nibs" the other day and they turned out chewy decadent and very delicious. However, the batter was not at all runny but rather very thick and glue-ish so they did not turn out flat but rather quite high and thick. But they did get the same shiny lovely surface as in your picture. Do you have any idea why they became different? It probably did not change the taste but I still would like to try them the way they are intended. Maybe the eggs are larger in the states? The other option I can think of is if the sugar got packed and I took more than I was supposed to. But the cookies were really not too sweet, just perfect. If it is not to much to ask I would really appreciate if you would like to weight the sugar and the eggs next time, would help a lot! Also, should I really whisk the eggs into the sugar/cocoa? When I did that the entire kitchen (including me) got covered in dust. Many thanx for help and a lovely site.

2:59 PM, February 06, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Kayenne, that soup sounds delicious - salty, spicy, and sour!

And Carin, many thanks for reporting back on your experience with the chocolate featherweight cookies! I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed them, even if the process was a bit different than I'd described. You're right - the batter is definitely quite glue-like, but mine has always been fairly thin, or at least not what I would describe as thick. I would guess that the difference could come from one of two sources: a difference in the quantity of liquid (maybe your eggs were smaller?), or a difference in the amount of dry ingredients (sugar, cocoa). Where the latter is concerned, know that when I measure dry ingredients, I use a "spoon and level" method. I use a spoon to scoop the dry ingredient into the measuring cup, and then I run a knife across the top of the cup to level it. That way, I can be sure that I'm not packing my dry ingredients too much. But given that your cookies weren't too sweet (or too darkly cocoa-y, I assume), I imagine that the culprit was the size of the eggs. Hmph! I'm sorry that I can't give a more conclusive answer, but that's my best guess.

But you're right - this cup business is fairly unscientific when compared to weights. I will certainly try to give ingredients as weights where it isn't too much trouble, but because many of the recipes I use and adapt call for American (cup) measurements, for the sake of ease I generally base my own final recipe on the same system.

Oh, and as for the cocoa dust, I know! I ran into that problem too - although only for a split second, until I got more of the liquid incorporated into the cocoa. I don't know any way around it, I'm afraid, because if you were to instead add the dry ingredients to the wet ones, you would likely wind up with lumps. I would advise trying to pour the egg whites evenly around the bowl before turning on the mixer, and keeping the mixer on as low a speed as possible.

Good luck, and happy baking and eating!

3:46 PM, February 06, 2006  
Blogger Kitchen Queen said...

Longtime reader, first time commenting....I adore tamarind, and chickpeas too, and your soup sounds awesome! I discovered tamarind while living in Mexico, their combination of it with heat drove my tastebuds wild. I've just started exploring Indian cuisine and was delighted to find it there too. Thanks for such an inspiring site (and congrats too)!

8:35 PM, February 06, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Kitchen Queen! I see that you too are a Washingtonian - in the West-Coast sense - and it's lovely to meet you.

4:06 PM, February 10, 2006  
Blogger RoboPithaya said...

Hi, I've been reading this blog for I while and I love your recpes, I wanted to add how popular tamarind is in Mexico, it is made into a drink mostly, you need to boil the strips (if you get it whole) without the seeds and then blend them with the water and add sugar, its reallllly refreshing cold and tangy for hot days also there is at least 50 different candies based on tamarind in Mexico, you should look into the different "aguas frescas" which is something I dont usually see outside of Mexico, they are drinks made from things like pineapple, starfruit, tamarind as I mentioned, mango, hibiscus flower, usually its diluted juice so it's what we usually have our food with maybe you could try a recipe for horchata or something in the summer!!

9:44 PM, February 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

love your blog...made the chick pea soup with tamarind concentrate... The tamarind concentrate I found was very dark and thick...I foolishly persevered with suggested amount in recipe.....my soup is VERY sour.......I'm still trying to rescue it :-) the smell and taste is great otherwise....just a heads up on being sure one has the same product or being more restrained if not sure.


4:28 AM, February 19, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

RoboPithaya, thank you for filling in the (admittedly sizable) gaps in my tamarind knowledge! I've seen aguas frescas offered in a couple of Mexican spots here in Seattle, actually, and while I can't speak for their quality or authenticity, I'm very curious to give them a try. A tamarind version sounds wonderful - what a good antidote, as you mentioned, for a hot day! A must-do for next summer.

Anne, I know exactly what you're talking about. I should have mentioned it earlier, but as with other bad memories, I must have blocked it out! There is one brand (or maybe style?) of tamarind concentrate that seems to be a lot more concentrated than the rest - very sour, very dark brown, and almost gelatinous in texture. I think it is this one. Brandon and I made the mistake of buying it one day last summer, and he - like you - tried to use it as he had used other brands, with wildly sour, somewhat nasty results. I am unsure of why it is so different from other varieties. The tamarind concentrate I used successfully for this soup is a Thai variety, light brown and soupy. The other, darker, more concentrated, and thicker one was made in India. If you can only find the latter, it's safe to say that you should definitely use less, as you wisely caution. Thanks so much for the heads-up, and better luck next time...

6:38 PM, February 19, 2006  
Anonymous Sharmila said...

Hi Molly, I'm Sharmila.
Came across your recipe yesterday. Made it yesterday. And please may I say, it is genius!!!!

I'm Indian -- and I loved the way you blended Indian and Italian food ingredients. Marvellous.

I used real dried tamarind btw -- for the first time (I'd been using pastes)-- and I was taken by how wonderful and rich the flavor is.
It's a bit messy because one has to use hands in a bowl of water to wring the joice from the pulp/seeds, but sooooo good.
Thank YOu

7:52 AM, November 05, 2010  
Anonymous Pierre said...

If you're interested in tamarind BBQ, check out my recent post at: http://www.thegrinninggourmet.com/?p=891

Great blog!

9:06 AM, June 11, 2011  
Anonymous Annie G. said...

A note for anyone else who's using the Tamicon brand of tamarind concentrate, like I did: You should definitely use less than the 3 tablespoons called for here (maybe 1 T.?). My soup came out much too sour to eat with the full 3 T., but I was able to turn it into a pretty good curry by draining off much of the liquid and adding enough coconut milk to make a thick stew, which I ate over rice.

4:09 PM, October 26, 2012  

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