Q: I’ve noticed that a lot of pad Thai recipes call for tamarind or tamarind paste. It’s a fruit… I think? What the heck is it, how do I use it, and where can I find it?
A: Sweet-tart, dark brownish-red tamarind is a necessary ingredient for an authentic-looking and tasting pad Thai (as well as in a variety of chutneys, soups, and sauces).
Technically, tamarind is the tangy pulp that’s extracted from the pods of the tropical tamarind tree. You can find it in Asian and Indian markets and some gourmet stores, as well as online; it’s commonly sold in paste (also called pulp) and in concentrate form. But don’t fret if neither is available—you can still make excellent pad Thai using the lime juice and water substitute below, but make sure you’ve exhausted all your sourcing options, since it’ll lack the depth of flavor and signature tang of the traditional recipe.
Tamarind Paste or Pulp
Tamarind paste, or pulp, is firm, sticky, and filled with seeds and fibers. We prefer this form of tamarind because it has the freshest, brightest flavor. To rehydrate the tamarind, soak it in boiling water until softened and mushy, 10 to 30 minutes (depending on the amount of tamarind). Mash the softened tamarind to break it up, and then push it through a fine-mesh strainer to remove the seeds and fibers and extract as much pulp as possible.
Tamarind concentrate is black, thick, shiny, and gooey. Its flavor approximates that of tamarind paste, but it tastes less fruity and more “cooked” and it colors the pad Thai a shade darker than tamarind paste does. To use in the pad Thai recipe, mix 1 tablespoon with ⅔ cup hot water.
Lime Juice and Water Substitute
If you just cannot find tamarind, combine ⅓ cup lime juice and ⅓ cup water and use it in its place. If using this substitute in pad Thai, use light brown sugar instead of granulated sugar to give the noodles some color and a faint molasses flavor; do not serve the pad Thai with lime wedges as the dish will already contain a good hit of lime.