Tamarind curry is a definitive answer for that nagging question – what’s for dinner? This is a perfect recipe for those busiest of days when you want something delicious and nutritious, but time (and sometimes motivation) is at a premium.
What is tamarind?
If you haven’t discovered tamarind yet, it’s time. Turns out, tamarind it a kind of tree and its ‘fruit’ are pods that look a bit like peanuts in the shell. Interesting tamarind pods, like peanuts are legumes. And it’s the pulp-like seeds inside the pods that are ground to make tamarind paste. Although we associate tamarind with Asian and specifically Indian cuisines, tamarind paste and derivatives are also abundantly produced in Thailand and India but you’ll find tamarind trees throughout South American including Mexico and yes, there are tamarind tree in Hawaii.
The flavor of tamarind
Tamarind has a distinctive sour-sweet flavor. Although one could associate it with lemon or lime because of the sourness, it has a different and more intense flavor. The amount of tamarind you’ll want to use in recipes somewhat depends on whether your tamarind comes to you as a concentrated paste, syrup, dried whole seeds or powder.
Although we’ll be making a simple 3-ingredient sauce of tomato paste, maple syrup and tamarind paste to accompany our lentils and a few spices and aromatics, tamarind has multiple uses. It’s often used in desserts and in Mexico, they even use tamarind pulp to make tea. It’s also a secret ingredient in Worcestershire, including our all-time vegan favorite, Henderson’s relish.
Where do you buy tamarind?
Tamarind used to be associated mainly with Indian cuisine, but thanks to global food markets and our exposure to so many different foods, the demand for tamarind has grown. Today, many large grocery-store chains in places like the United States stock it in their Asian sections. Likewise, you can often find tamarind in specialty shops that feature Asian or Indian cuisines. If all else fails, you can find it online. Search for tamarind paste.
In some places, you’ll find tamarind as a block of paste that you can reconstitute, so don’t be put off it this happens to you. My only caveat about buying tamarind is the same as for any processed product – read the label. Avoid any added ingredients such as sugar. The more processed an ingredient is, the longer the additives, so you may find tamarind paste cleaner than tamarind sauce. This of course is highly dependent on the brands you can find.
Substitutes for tamarind
Tamarind has a uniquely strong sour-sweet taste; however, if you need a substitute, there are a few to consider.
Pomegranate molasses, which is a reduction of pomegranate juice is a great substitute for tamarind because you’ll get the sour and mild sweetness. It also has a similar consistency as tamarind paste. If you make this option, be sure to read the label that there is no added sugar.
Citrus juice specifically lime or lemon juice might also do the trick. For this option, you may want to consider adding a dash of date paste or another sweetener, although our tamarind curry will have tomato paste which might be enough sugar for you without additional ingredients.
In a serious pinch, mango powder or mango paste made from blending dried mango can provide a similar taste. Unlike the pomegranate molasses, you won’t have as thick a consistency from either the juice or powder that you’d get from either tamarind paste or pomegranate molasses. Don’t get too excited about this, by the time you add in the tomato paste and add it to the cooked lentils, the worst that can happen to your tamarind curry is that it’s a bit ‘saucier’. Not so serious a problem in the scheme of things.
My quick tamarind sauce recipe
When I first started experimenting with tamarind paste, I ended up making elaborate sauces with multiple ingredients. Then I got ‘real’. Tamarind is such a wonderfully distinctive sweet flavor with a powerful sour punch. There just isn’t much more to add for making a nice tamarind sauce but tomato paste and a bit of maple syrup as far as I’m concerned.
Making quick tamarind curry
Tamarind curry with lentils is one of my favorite fallback recipes. The simplicity gets me every time. You need only roast a few cumin seeds and add onions to saute and finish off my adding ginger, garlic, garam masala and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
Once you’re there, just add rinsed lentils (green or brown) along with veggie broth or water and simmer until the lentils are tender. This takes about 20 minutes depending on your lentils. That’s plenty of time to whisk up the sauce and mix it in with the cooked lentils. All done, and you’ve used up around 40 minutes of which 20 are inactive.
Toppers and sides
One thing I like to add, are some browned onions. This is super easy to do. Just peel a couple of onions, cut them in half and slice thin. Brown them in ½ cup of veggie broth and you’ll get rich, brown onions. This brings out the flavor of the tamarind curry. You can opt to serve this dish with rice or another grain, but quite often, we don’t even bother and serve it with a simple side dish such as spicy 5-minute cucumber salad or smother it in thick flatbread, similar to what we do with Majadura over flatbread. It’s all good and guess what? Tamarind curry is a fantastic take-along meal. So consider making this quick dish for the sole purpose of quick lunch for several days.
One way to avoid slips in your quest for healthy, plant-based eating is to arm yourself with quick solutions. It stops you dialing for take out or grabbing a ready meal and telling yourself ‘it’s just this once’. Those of use who have spent years on the front lines of dieting have slipped down that slope too many times. It’s never ‘just this once’. One way to secure the ground a bit is to prepare for busy times by keeping ingredients on hand that you can use to whip up meals that allow you to walk along a more level path. Perhaps they even send you upward just a notch. Every step forward, every meal can get you closer to the goal.Print
Busy day tamarind curry with lentils
Tamarind curry with lentils, onions, garlic, ginger, garam masala, cumin, tomato paste, maple syrup and tamarind paste - a healthy busy day vegan dinner.
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 30 minutes
- Total Time: 40 minutes
- Yield: 6 servings 1x
- Category: Main Courses
- Cuisine: Indian
- 2 tsp. cumin seeds (use 1 tsp. ground cumin as a substitute)
- 1 onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
- 2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced
- 2 tsp. garam masala
- ¼ - ½ tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
- 2 cups dried green or brown lentils rinsed and drained
- 4 cups vegetable broth or 4 cups water with 2 vegetable bouillon cubes
- 6 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 2 Tbsp. tamarind paste
- 2 Tbsp. maple syrup or another liquid sweetener such as date paste or agave syrup
- Heat a medium pot and add 2 tsp. cumin seeds. Toast the seeds by stirring constantly for about 2 minutes.
- Add the onions and sauté for about 5 minutes until the onions start to get soft.
- Add the minced garlic and ginger, the garam masala and cayenne pepper (if using) and stir to combine everything for another minute.
- Add the rinsed lentils and vegetable broth. Bring the pot to a boil and then lower to simmer, cover and cook until the lentils are tender (20-25 minutes).
- While the lentils cook, make the tamarind sauce by combining 6 Tbsp. tomato paste, 2 Tbsp. tamarind paste and 2 Tbsp. maple syrup.
- Once the lentils are tender and the liquid is absorbed, add the sauce, stir to combine and cook for an additional 5 minutes.
- Yes, you can use canned lentils. Just drain and rinse 3 cans of lentils (you want around 5 cups total). Add them along with ½ cup vegetable broth and cook for 5 minutes, then add the sauce and cook for another 5. Total time for this quick meal is about 20 minutes with prep.
- Another quick meal idea is to follow this recipe and use 5 cups cooked chickpeas. Other beans, such as kidney beans will change the original flavor to a bit sweeter, but still make a satisfying, quick meal.
Keywords: tamarind curry