How to Prepare Tamarind Pulp (น้ำมะขามเปียก) for Thai Cooking


how to prepare tamarind pulp
One major ingredient in the Thai cuisine is the pulp of dried mature tamarinds. It’s one of the most prominent souring agents right up there with lime juice. Knowing how to prepare tamarind pulp from dried tamarind pods is, therefore, very important if you’re one of those people who take Thai cooking seriously.

If you plan on making your own Pad Thai in the future, familiarity with how to prepare tamarind pulp will serve you well.

Now that I think about it, the reason I have not blogged about Pad Thai [Added 01-01-12: I have recently blogged about Pad Thai], perceived worldwide to be the quintessential Thai dish, is mainly because I want to introduce to you first each of what I consider to be the essential ingredients. Tamarind pulp, the ideal souring agent of the dish, is first on the list.

how to prepare tamarind pulp
Too often, tamarind pulp is referred to as tamarind juice. The only explanation for this obvious misnomer that I can think of is that the Thais call prepared tamarind pulp, “น้ำมะขาม(เปียก),” which is literally “tamarind water.” Needless to say, น้ำมะขามเปียก is not at all the juice of the unjuiceable tamarinds; it is the hydrated and disintegrated pulp of this fruit-like legume.

This is similar to “prune juice” which is also a misnomer as you don’t “juice” the prunes to get prune juice; you take the pulverized pulp of dried plums and add enough water to it to make it drinkable. It is also the case with tamarind “juice.” If you go to Thailand and some countries in Latin America, you may see tamarind juice offered as a beverage. That beverage is nothing but water flavored with tamarind pulp. And the tamarind pulp which we’re talking about here is simply a much, much more concentrated version of what is referred to as tamarind juice.

Did I thoroughly confuse you yet?

I believe the juice vs. pulp issue is worth mentioning because most prepared tamarind pulp that you’ll see in Asian markets is labeled, “tamarind juice” or “tamarind juice concentrate.” When you see something like that, just know that it is, in fact, tamarind pulp.

Why make your own? Well, one reason is that it’s more economical that way. When you buy the watery prepared tamarind pulp that comes in a plastic tub, you get mostly water and frustratingly small amounts of tamarind for your money. When you buy a block of shelled tamarinds as shown here, you get 100% tamarinds and no filler.

how to prepare tamarind pulp
This leads to the other reason why you should prepare your own tamarind pulp. As mentioned above, most brands of prepared tamarind pulp that I have seen on the market are too thin and watery. This means in order to get the desired level of sourness, you need to put in more of it.

The souring agent is the tamarind pulp proper; the water is merely the vehicle that is there only to help soften and loosen the pulp.

Therefore, to get maximum sourness without adding too much liquid to the dish, you need prepared tamarind pulp that contains as little water as possible. You’re not going to get that from commercial prepared “tamarind juice concentrate.”

Does the level of concentration make a difference? In some dishes, this is not a battle worth dying in. In other dishes, however, too much liquid produces less-than-desirable results. Take Pad Thai for example. Adding too much liquid could very well result in the noodles being tragically soggy and falling apart. You definitely don’t want that.

In the US, dried tamarinds are often sold whole at Hispanic markets or in blocks (with the shells, or sometimes both the shells and seeds, removed) at Asian markets. I like the block kind as it eliminates one messy step.

The ratio of tamarind pulp and water that works best for me is one ounce of shelled tamarinds per one fluid ounce of water. This results in prepared tamarind pulp that is thick in consistency and concentrated in flavor. The amount of water is just enough to allow the shelled tamarinds to soften up and disintegrate without much manual labor on your part. Other than that, the water serves no purpose whatsoever.

For a 14-ounce block of tamarinds shown here, I use 14 fluid ounces of lukewarm water (1 3/4 cups). [Block tamarinds are the easiest to work with. Having been shelled, deseeded, and kept in a condition wherein they stay moist, block tamarinds don’t need to be boiled or soaked in boiling water.] I let it soak for 15-20 minutes. Then I grab a handful of the tamarind pods and keep squashing and squeezing the now-softened pulp to separate it from the veins, the seeds, and the tough membranes that cover the seeds. Use both hands for extra pleasure.

What you end up with after the squashing and squeezing is a thick purée of tamarind pulp along with the veins, seeds, and membranes. Some people run the tamarind pulp purée through a sieve to separate out the pulp. When you deal with large amounts of tamarind purée, this makes more sense. However, I prefer to grab a handful of the tamarind purée and squeeze it really hard. The tamarind pulp purée will seep through your fingers as you tighten your fist while the veins, seeds, and membranes stay inside. Then you keep the purée and throw away the junk in your fist.* You keep doing this until you end up with nothing but thick and smooth tamarind pulp in the bowl.


It may sound like a messy, icky undertaking, but in less than half a minute into it, if that long, you will have this very strangely pleasant why-didn’t-I-do-this-before feeling. Trust me. I’ve done this for years and every time still feels like the first time.

This ratio of 14 ounces tamarinds and 14 fluid ounces of water will yield approximately 16 fluid ounces (2 cups) of very concentrated tamarind pulp, ready to use in any recipe. All recipes calling for prepared tamarind pulp, which you will find here henceforth, assume that the pulp is prepared in this manner and has this consistency.

If you plan to use a lot of prepared tamarind pulp in a week or two, you can store it in a glass jar in the refrigerator. For longer storage, I recommend that you freeze it as prepared tamarind pulp can get moldy after a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. If you have ice trays, fill them with the tamarind pulp, freeze, pop out the frozen cubes and store them in a freezer bag in the freezer. That way you can thaw out just a few cubes when you only need a small amount.

_____________________

Angry Asian Creations makes a Khmer spicy beef and aubergine soup, “Samlaw Machou Kroeung,” with prepared tamarind pulp.

The Well-Seasoned Cook makes Indian Spiced Tamarind Cooler with tamarind pulp

*My maternal grandmother never threw away the leftover tamarind veins and membranes. She used them as a facial scrub. She also sometimes used the pulp as a facial mask. It must have worked as my grandma was one really hot woman and remained so well into her 70s (needless to say I didn’t inherit those genes …). I once witnessed how her doctor, who was in his mid-40s back then, hit on my grandma who was probably 75 at that time. It was quite entertaining.

  1. Very interesting :) We in India, more so, South India use tamarind a lot. We have a more fibrous type of tamarind. I think it comes straight from the pods and dried and compressed into a packet ( for cooks living abroad like me) or in India as free form.

    I just throw in a lime sized ball of tamarind and soak in hot water ( I take the easy way out by heating water and tamarind together in the MW) and let it cool and squeeze out the pulp. We hardly store it ( I do! :D) because its supposed to be used fresh!

    Sorry for the rambling 😐 But I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE tamarind and I had to write in!

  2. A_and_N – Thanks for sharing. Always love hearing how other cultures use the same ingredient. You’re right. Tamarind is a big part of South Asian cuisine too. And looks like you’re a big fan of it! :)

  3. Amazing and interesting!!! You make your own “tamarind juice”! I am so looking forward to your Pad Thai receipe!!

    Also, the last paragraph, that makes me wanna try your granny’s skincare secret, hahaha, skincare is for men too, right?

  4. Thats a great idea about freezing the pulp in ice cube trays….Use both hands for extra pleasure…ahhh yes

  5. I have always wondered about the dried tamrind at the Asian market – now I know! I can’t wait to give this a try – sure is easy enough!
    I saw a recipe for using it in cupcakes – sure sounds interesting and my better half loves the sourness!
    p.s. any other recipes using tamrind?
    Thanks so much for posting this!
    LeeYong rolfmester@yahoo.com

  6. I live in Bali and can only find tamarind WHOLE. To make the Tamarind paste, what should I do? Should I break the shells open and scrape the paste out, or boil the entire thing to soften it and then proceed as outlined above?

  7. Anonymous – You probably won’t have to “scrape” the flesh out of the pods as mature tamarinds — at least the kinds I’ve seen — aren’t sticking to the shells. Each comes with a built-in “net” of long, stringy fibrous strands that separate the flesh from the shell.

    You don’t have to boil them. Just put the shelled tamarinds in a bowl and pour warm water over them and let them soak until they’re soft enough, 15 minutes tops.

    • Thank you! I have bought fresh tamarinds (in shell) and was just going to pop them in my “casserole”, then thought I’d better check :)

  8. Hi Leela:
    Thanks very much for the suggestion. I’m now looking forward to giving it a try – I’ve got a recipe for a Tamarind Ginger “Cooler” Drink that requires Tamarind Paste. Thanks again for your help! Beth (formerly known as “Anonymous”)

  9. Thank you Leela for this information! I was looking for instructions on how to prepare the tamarind block and your instruction was informative and easy to follow! Thank you again!

  10. Thanks for this post Leela!! I found a recipe online for a sweet and sour tamarind fish dish. ages ago and I bought the pulp in a block and also the tamarind juice concentrate as I wasn’t sure what to do.. I opened the tamarind block and was soo confused by all the seeds and bits, but the juice was much easier to use. I ended up tossing out the pulp because I had no idea what to do with it! Finally, instructions!!! So excited to try it out properly now :) Thanks heaps for this post!

  11. For those in a hurry, many Indians I know tend to favor the LAXMI brand tamarind concentrate [brown in color] that comes in a 12 oz. GLASS bottle, approx. $2.50-3.50.

    They universally SHUN the TAMCON and other concentrate pastes, that come in plastic jars.

  12. gautam – Thanks. I don’t particularly like Laxmi liquid tamarind in Thai food. I find their block tamarinds quite good, though.

    And oh, I agree. Tamcon isn’t a good choice for Thai food at all. It’s so concentrated it’s sticky like tar and tends to turn everything too dark.

  13. Thank you for posting this! I am beginning to learn the art of Asian cooking. The first thing in the “basics” section of my book is Sweet chilli Sambal. It’s first ingredient is tamarind pulp. Of course being Irish and Swedish I’ve never cooked with it before and had no idea what it is. Google led me to your blog. Thanks to you and your info and great explanation, I can move forward past the first recipe!

  14. Leela, thank you so much for this post (and this blog). I am Dutch, but live in Brazil and last week someone gave me some fresh tamarind beans (that i have never used!). Brazilians use tamarind mostly for sweets, “lemonade” and pastry, it seems. Inspired by your blog i prepared a thick tamarind paste, and invented a sour curry for chicken, with the ingredients i found in the kitchen, that turned out quite nicely.

  15. hello in there im from Mexico, and I was looking for information about the tamarind, im doing a essay about tamarind, and it is so interested read this blog and get to know so much thinks about it, here in Mexico, we eat this fruit in pulp and prepareted whit sweet and spicy chili that i love it so much.

  16. Very much enjoyed the well written narrative and attention to detail. I used my spaetzle maker to separate the tamarind after soaking and liquefying. It works like a charm but is another gadget not everyone has in the kitchen arsenal. Also I believe the pickled radish is left out in final recipe.

  17. Josh – Great tip. Thanks. The pickled radish is actually in the recipe; it just goes by its alternate name: preserved radish.

  18. I have a jar of Tamarind Puree which contains 86% Tamarind, water and salt. The recipe I am using for tonight is Stir-Fried Prawns with Tamarind and asks for 6 tablespoons of Tamarind juice and says its made by mixing tamarind paste with warm water, but it doesn’t give a ratio of each. What would you recommend please?

  19. Rosemary – Without knowing anything about the recipe, I’d say your best bet is to start out with 2 tablespoons, taste, and add more if needed. It’s always safe to start with less then add more.

  20. Leela, I’m in the Cayman Islands and have a tamarind tree that looks to be about to bear quite a few pods. What would you suggest I do with the harvest – make pulp and freeze it?

  21. Al – Absolutely. That way, you can use the pulp in various Southeast and South Asian recipes (among others) or to make all sorts of tamarind-based drinks throughout the year.

  22. I buy my ingredients for Pad Thai in a local Asian market. I’ve bought a few different kinds of tamarind that are always labeled seedless, but they aren’t. How do you know whether or not your tamarind is seeded or not?

    PS – I love your article and will definitely try your method of making my own pulp. It won’t matter if it’s seeded then. Thanks!!

  23. Margaret – From my experience, though containing no actual seeds, the ones labeled “seedless” still come with seed sacs which need to be strained out (which is what I’ve done here). To me, that’s considered seedless. But if your “seedless” tamarinds come with actual dark brown, hard seeds, well, then I guess the manufacturer lies.

    But you’re right. As long as you follow this method, the presence or absence of seeds doesn’t matter.

  24. Thanks very much for your tamarind post! I just recently started blogging about preparing foods I’m unfamiliar with, so when I found tamarind and decided to try it, it was your site that coached me through. I linked to you — please check out what I wrote here: http://www.cookingdangerously.com. You have a great site, and the results were delicious!

  25. Ann – Thanks! One thing, though, is that the tamarinds you show are the sweet variety which is meant to be eaten as a snack and not for cooking.

    • In the Philippines, we use the tamarind to sour our soups with. We also eat it as a candy called sampalok. Its pulp that is sweetened with sugar with salt added, then wrapped in plastic. Thailand and Mexico add chili powder to it.

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  31. Seeing your response to Ann at Cooking Dangerously makes me wonder if the whole pods I just bought at a Mexican food market are the sweeter variety… They were in a huge cardboard box marked “Whole Tamarinds.” I processed them as you describe and while a little messy (*giggle*), omgosh! It tastes so good! I can’t wait to make Pad Thai again…we love your recipe!! So far, we love them all! Thanks so much for sharing!!

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  34. OK….I admit I may be the only idiot in the crowd. I found it difficult to remove all of the unwanted pieces from my block of tamarind. Soaking it in warm water did little to solve my problem. I finally resorted to simmering the block in water (adding the water very gradually to end up with the proper consistency) and then put it through a strainer. This solved my problem very quickly…with a lot less mess. Is there a reason NOT to separate the pulp using this method?

  35. I too am curious about seeing a photo of your grandmother!

    I attempted pad thai last night using a different recipe. Came out pretty salty, and I think I know why. The fish oil was overpowering and the reason for that was because I had prepared tamarind a completely different way so that it was like a broth. I think the culprit was WAY too much water. Going to head to the grocery story after work tonight and try things your way. I like the idea of a thick paste. Might kick the fish taste and give my pad thai more a sour bite!

    Thanks for writing this helpful piece, Leela!
    (I’ll let you know how it goes)

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  39. I made some tamarind pulp years ago while in Thailand and yes, I found it fun! I’m confused though by the weights above and when you weigh them- bedore or after shelling and before or after removing seeds, veins, etc. How many ounces of tamarind do I soak while they still have their seeds, veins, etc in them and in how much warm water?

    • Elizabeth – The weight is for the whole block of seedless tamarinds (they come with veins and seed coverings but no seeds). When it comes to whole tamarinds, I would just cover them with the least amount of warm water necessary to make them soft.

  40. SO MUCH FUN. I had to wipe down the kitchen afterwards (and myself — somehow in my enthusiasm it got everywhere), but I had fresh tamarind in my Pad Thai tonight, and there’s an ice cube tray of the extra goo chilling in the freezer as I write. Thanks! :)

  41. I’m trying to make pad thai this weekend. I bought a frozen sheet of “Tamarind pulp” by Goya or some Hispanic company that is used to make drinks. How do I use that for the pad thai? Chop of a piece and throw it in there? Help please :)

  42. i’ve been using the soak-mash-squeeze method for the longest time, but it always irks me to find small bits of broken shells in the puree (1-2mm). do others get the same problem? is it because the tamarind block is of poor quality? not that i have man choices of brands though. so i gave up the squeezing and started straining, but this only works when you want tamarind *water*, not puree. eventually got a small jar of processed tamarind paste, will try if it works.

    a bit of introduction: i just found your website yesterday and i love your writing! the recipes and the photography as well, of course, but your brand of geeky humour and rants just made my day. i’m indonesian, i love cooking and photography and your site has inspired me to consider a second career…

  43. My grandmother used to make a delicious syrup withi tamarinds.. but I can’t replicate it. She soaked tamarinds in water and then added sugar and orange peel…. I tried this but the tamarinds made the syrup murky.. don’t know what she did. but it was so refreshing.. cold… with home made bread and butter.. you know how you get prune juice when you soak prunes and add a little sugar and heat them for a bit.. reminded me of that.. it’s basically just a tart, clear, delicious syrup. do you have any idea of what I’m talking about? and or how to do it so that the syrup remain clear.

    • Carol – I’ve never had the drink you’ve described, but it seems straining the liquid through a disposable coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth may do the trick.

  44. OH MY GOD I did this and when I put my hands in and starting squeezing my hands starting stinging and itching so badly!! I am allergic to tamarind? Has this happened to anyone else? I can eat it fine. what!!!!!

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