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How to Make Tamarind Paste

I’ve been seeking the Perfect Pad Thai for sometime now, and just haven’t liked any of the versions I’ve tried all that much.

However, after thoroughly reading She Simmers’ treatise on Pad Thai (there are FIVE PAGES devoted to how to make Pad Thai) I feel like I’m getting awfully close. Not there yet – but REALLY close.

Of particular help was her tutorial on how to handle the noodles. The package directions and most sources on the Internet often tell you to boil the noodles, but I quickly discovered this makes an icky glommy mess of rice noodles. That’s just wrong! I’M TALKING TO YOU, TRADER JOE’S!

So then I switched to just soaking them – but how to tell when they’re soaked ENOUGH? Well She Simmers cleared that up for me as well – now I know I can quit soaking them when they pass the twirl test – take a rice noodle and wrap it around your finger several times. If it wraps nicely and doesn’t keep trying to sproing back on you or break, it’s soaked. If not – soak it a little while longer. For the first time, I can reliably stir fry rice noodles now and have them come out right EVERY TIME, whereas before sometimes they would come out ok, but sometimes they would just be overcooked and falling apart.

Then there was the tamarind called for – I’ve cooked Indian style food for decades, but I’ve always shied away from block tamarind because I could never get clear instructions regarding how to handle it. “Oh, just soak with some water and then take out the seeds and fiber”.

Ummm, ok – how much water? “Oh, enough”. How to remove the seeds and fiber? “Oh just take it out with hand, squeeze out the water.”

I tried this a few times and it never worked out the way I thought it should so I finally gave up and relegated myself to using the Tamcon/Tamicon “concentrated” tamarind paste – which is NOT, I repeat NOT, appropriate for use in making Pad Thai. For making sambar or rasam – OK, but anything else, it’s just the wrong stuff.

Other times I was steered by the workers at Asian Markets to this thin watery stuff that was basically pretty similar to the Tamcon/Tamicon stuff, only with a lot more water in it. Usually it’s labeled “tamarind water” and that’s a pretty apt description.

Uh-uh. This is ALSO not appropriate for Pad Thai. There is NO pulp in the Tamcon/Tamicon concentrate, and not much in this other stuff. Trust me, no matter what somebody in an Asian market tells you, it’s the wrong stuff.

Rogue’s Gallery of the Wrong Stuff:
TamiconTamconTamarind concetrate

The basic “recipe” for extracting pulp from a block of tamarind is to use a volume of water (in ounces) equal to the weight (in ounces, but this is by weight) of the block tamarind.

Example: for each 8 oz by weight of tamarind, use 1 cup (8 fluid oz) of water.

The rest is all procedure.

You want the block tamarind that is already mostly pretty well cleaned up – if it looks like this: Messy Tamarind it is NOT what you want – that stuff has a ton of hulls and seeds in it. You can clean it and use it but there’s a lot more waste and it’s a huge pain. Also, I wouldn’t use a good strainer – those seeds and hull pieces can be tough.

The stuff you want will look sort of like a black square or rectangle of tar:

Not-quite-so-messy Tamarind Block Tamarind

It may say “Seedless” and should be fairly seedless (though I usually find a very few seeds anyway). It may say “wet tamarind”. It may only be labeled in the script of the country of origin. But it will look something like one of these, and not like the other picture above.

You will be using about 1 ⅝ cups (1.5c plus 2 T) of water with one full 14 oz block of tamarind. This will make enough tamarind for about 2 ¾ recipes of Pad Thai, using the sauce recipe from She Simmers. You can freeze both the pulp and the paste, so no worries there.

On She Simmers, she recommends letting the tamarind block soak with the water for about 20 mins, then squeezing the fiber and seed remnants out by hand. However, being the somewhat squeamish and definitely lazy barbarian cook that I am, I prefer to use HOT water and let it soak until it looks like the tamarind has absorbed nearly all the water – a process of a couple of hours, but a couple of hours that I don’t have to do a darn thing to it. So I just break up the tamarind block in the hot water with a coupe of forks and let it sit there until I can’t see any “loose” water any more.

You can squeeze this stuff out by hand, but I’ve tried it and it is sticky and messy to do it that way. So I go ahead and use the squish-it-through-a-sieve process instead. I get a very smooth, very consistent, fiber-free pulp as a result, whereas squeezing it by hand means stuff gets by me into the paste that I don’t care for, plus, well, I just don’t like the sticky feel of that stuff squishing through my fingers. Also, I waste more of the good stuff trying to do it that way – some pulp gets thrown away with the fiber and seeds. YMMV. Use the technique that works for you.

Spoon about a quarter or half of the soaked tamarind into a hand-held sieve which you rest over a large mixing bowl. Secure the sieve so it doesn’t slid around (just grab the handle) and use a soup spoon or a smallish serving spoon to scrape away at the mess in the sieve to force the pulp out, but leaving the fiber and other junk behind. When it looks like you’ve squooshed the vast majority of the good stuff out – what’s left will be much dryer though still a bit sticky – scrape down the outside of the sieve with a rubber spatula into the bowl of tamarind pulp, and toss the stuff from INSIDE the sieve. Then do the next batch.

Squishing with your hands is probably quicker, but it’s icky and (at least when I do it) pretty wasteful. If you’re ick tolerance is higher than mine (and if you weren’t raised by people who lived through the Depression so wasting ANYTHING strikes you as the worst sin that doesn’t actually involve torture or murder) you may want to go ahead and do it that way, but this is what I’m most comfortable with.

canned tamarind pulp
Note the pulpy bits
coating the side of the jar

For those who find this process still icky and somewhat onerous, take heart – there is an alternative, though I’ve never seen it anywhere but in an Indian grocery. You CAN buy cleaned-up tamarind pulp – PULP, not the tamarind water, tamarind juice, or tamarind “concentrate” you’ve been warned against (see the Rogue’s Gallery above). Look carefully at the jar (click the pic to the left for a larger view) and if you can see pulpy solids and if it is thick and gloppy (but not like jelly), rather than thin and watery, you can use that. It may be labeled “Paste”, “Puree”, or, most confusing of all, “Concentrate”. Look carefully at it to make sure you’re getting the actual pulp and not the watery stuff or jelly-like types of concentrate. If in an Indian grocery, tell the proprietor that you want the sort of tamarind pulp (in a jar) that is used for making chutney. It won’t be quite as thick as if you make it yourself from block tamarind; but it’ll be a lot quicker and easier.

Oh yeah, and a lot less icky.

Canned tamarind pulpTamPasteTamPasteTamPasteTamPasteTamPasteTamarindPaste
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Masala Dhokla

 
I use this when I have leftover curry to use up and I don’t want to serve it again with plain rice – the Masala Dhokla is a quick and easy way to vary the meal.You can use any fairly dry leftover curry, such as chole, channa masala, any potato curry that doesn’t have a lot of gravy, etc.

This is a “quick” dhokla recipe that doesn’t require any fermentation and only takes a few minutes to mix up.

YOU WILL NEED

  • 1 cup besan (chickpea) flour
  • 2 T cream of wheat (farina, semolina, rava)
  • 1/2 tsp Fruit Fresh or citric acid or Eno salt
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 2 tsp ginger paste
  • 1 green chili, finely minced
  • 1 T light sesame oil (gingelly oil)
  • 1.5 c water
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp more of the Fruit Fresh, citric acid, or Eno Salt

 
DIRECTIONS

  1. Stir the dry ingredients together with a fork.
  2. Add ginger, chili, light sesame oil (gingelly), and water.
  3. Mix well with a wire whip or a fork.
  4. Add 1.5 tsp baking powder and another 1/2 tsp of the Fruit Fresh or citric acid crystals, or 2 tsp of Eno salt. Mix well but quickly.
  5. Let the batter sit while you bring water to boil in a steamer or dutch oven with a cake rack in the bottom.
  6. When it reaches the simmering point, turn the heat down to keep it at the simmer (covered).
  7. Pour one-half the batter into a greased 8″ cake pan.
    Set the pan in the top half of a steamer or on the rack in your dutch oven.
  8. Cover the pan.
  9. The water should not touch the cake pan, you will have to watch and add water if it gets too low during the steaming process. This shouldn’t be to much trouble if you keep it at the simmer and keep it covered.
  10. Let it set up for a few mins in the steamer – how long depends on how thick you poured the batter, it could be only a minute or up to 5 if it’s a thicker dhokla.
  11. Spoon small amounts of your curry over the surface of the dhokla – for safety’s sake remove the steamer from the pan so you don’t get a steam burn while doing this.
  12. Then simply replace in the steamer and continue to cook. Voila, easy, quick Masala Dhokla!
  13. The batter should be done in 13 minutes or so (less without the masala). Use a knife to test for doneness (just like a cake).
  14. Remove from the steamer and loosen the edges of the dhokla with a knife. Put a plate over the top of the cakepan and flip the whole thing out to flip it out of the cake pan. You may have to shake it a few times to get it to drop out. Then put another plate over the plate with the dhokla on it (which is now upside down) and flip again, to get it right side up.
  15. Serve with ghee.

 
Simple as that!

 

Allagada Podi – A potato curry

This is a variation of potato curry that includes some spices I don’t typically cook with when making Indian food. It’s a tasty change of pace.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 T oil – peanut or mustard oil, or 1/2 veg oil and 1/2 ghee
  • 3 to 4 med red potatoes, about 1 1/3 lbs
  • 1 large onion, diced or thinly sliced
  • OPTIONAL 2 roma style tomatoes, cubed, or 1 sm can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tsp poppy seed
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds
  • OPTIONAL 1 T UNSWEETENED coconut flakes
  • 2 to 3 green chili, to taste
  • 1.5 tsp ginger
  • 1.5 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp chana dal
  • 1 tsp black mustard seed
  • 8-12 curry leaves
  • 1/8 tsp clove powder
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch of turmeric (scant 1/8 tsp)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 T plain, unflavored yoghurt
  • Coriander leaves, chopped, as garnish

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Cut the potatoes into cubes, slices, or shoestring style strips. Cut the onions and set both aside.
  2. In a coffee or spice grinder (used only for spices), grind the poppy seeds, coriander powder, and sesame seeds. Also the coconut, if you are using it. Set aside in a small bowl.
  3. Measure out the ginger paste and minced garlic and set aside, mixed together, in another small bowl. Add the minced green chili to this bowl as well.
  4. Put the cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon in another small bowl.
  5. Measure the turmeric out into a small bowl and set aside with the other pre-measured spices.
  6. Heat the oil in a pan. Which oil you choose will have an effect on the flavor of the dish. Note that mustard seed oil is more sensitive to heat than peanut oil or ghee; I prefer peanut oil for this dish myself.
  7. Add the chana dal to the oil as it heats. When the chana starts to fry, add the mustard seeds. As soon as the mustard seeds start to crackle, quickly stir in the cardamom, clove, and cinnamon mixture.
  8. When the mustard seeds start to actually pop, add the curry leaves and then quickly add the onion and turmeric and fry for a few minutes until they start to brown, stirring frequently.
  9. Add the ground poppy seed, sesame seed, and coriander powder (and coconut if you are using it) mixture and stir well, IMMEDIATELY add the tomatoes and the potatoes.
  10. Stir quickly, sprinkle on the salt, then stir to coat the potato pieces evenly.
  11. Turn heat down to med, cover, and let the potatoes cook, stirring occasionally, until they just barely begin to soften.
  12. Turn the heat up to med high, uncover, and fry the potatoes. As they brown, turn them gently, sort of like a hash brown. Do not stir as this will break up the potato pieces.
  13. When they have browned sufficient unto your taste, add the plain yogurt if you have it, then sprinkle with the torn or minced coriander.
  14. Serve with rice, naan, chappati or puri.

Enjoy!

You GHEE, girl!

Ghee is the king of oils in India. It has historically been a sign of wealth, health, and even beauty. It’s certainly tasty! And so easy to make.

Take 1 lb of UNSALTED butter.
Melt it over a low heat.
Gently cook until the milk solids precipitate out and turn crispy, lightly browned.
Strain the solids out – I use flour sack cloth lining a small metal strainer.

Store in a metal or glass container. Ghee may be kept on the countertop for at least 3 to 4 months (assuming you properly cooked and strained out all the milk solids).

You can use it in place of oil in Indian recipes. It’s kind of expensive to do on a regular basis but a nice change of pace once in awhile. The flash point of ghee is quite high – if the milk solids have all been removed it is actually higher than most vegetable oils. So it won’t burn the way butter does at higher temps when frying.

Or serve warmed so that diners can drizzle a bit of ghee over their food as they eat. This is particularly good with dal dishes.

That’s really all there is to ghee.

Bhindi (Okra) Curry

I hate okra. You know that song – “Great green gobs of …”?

Well, it always made me think of okra. It is slimy, gummy, gooey, green grossness.

I HATE okra.

But I like this curry. And it is made with okra.

Okra. There’s a reason the soup that incorporates it as a mainstay is called “gumbo”. “Mucilaginous” is the best, most polite way to describe okra. Mucilaginous. The very word has the ring of authenticity. That’s got to be an onomatopoeia if ever there was one. Mucilaginous mucilaginous mucilaginous – I really HATE okra.

Poor okra has really gotten a bum rap all these years. Poor okra does not, after all, entirely deserve it’s reputation as the slug of the vegetable world. It turns out that okra does not, in fact, HAVE to turn into something that exudes long strings of slime that something deep inside you knows will never never never EVER wash off.

It can do so, and easily does. But it doesn’t HAVE to be that way. With a little tender loving care, you too can make unslimy, tasty okra dishes.

There are two ways to get around the sliminess of okra. One is to deep fry the little buggers so you sort of cauterize the wounds, causing them to cease their relentless gooey oozings. It works, there’s no doubt, but it’s really sort of an unnecessary step if you’re going on to make a main dish with it anyway. Plus, I don’t like deep-frying much. Plus plus, I can’t shake the idea that deep frying okra somehow contaminates the oil permanently (as I typically use deep-frying oil at least 3 times before discarding). I’d have to be sure I was using the deep frying oil on it’s last trip before the Long Goodbye if I were ever to risk deep-frying okra.

But that’s just me.

The other is to pan fry the okra, sliced into little wheel-shapes, in a single layer, until they are brown and crispy. This does take some time, but it is time well-spent. So first I’m going to describe the technique, and then I’ll put the actual recipe under that.

JUMP to the ACTUAL RECIPE if you don’t want to read all about the technique.

The first way to fend off the oozies it to use the freshest, least mature okra pods you can find. If they’re longer than 3″, they’re edging towards doddering okra senility. If they’re longer than 4″, AVOID AVOID AVOID! *SHUDDER*

So get the smallest, firmest pods. It’s unfortunate but an awful lot of grocery-store okra is going to be, shall we say, “overdeveloped” for our purposes, but you can still make it work as long as you stay away from the biggest pods.

Wash your okra, then dry it THOROUGHLY. I toss it in a dishtowel and then lay it out on another, dry dishtowel to air dry. Yes, this takes some time, but it’s time you spend doing other more useful and fun things. Like reading the 9 million free books I downloaded onto the e-reader my son gave me. YES!

When the okra is completely dry (I mean COMPLETELY dry, because any hint of wetness will bring on the oozies big time), cut it into wheel-shaped rounds, about 1/4″ thick. Discard the stem end. Whether or not you discard the pointy end is purely a matter of – dare I say it, in connection with okra – aesthetics.

Yes, it will start to ooze while you’re doing this. Your knife blade will collect a layer of goo with embedded okra seeds, and you will occasionally have to remove the odd piece of okra that has glued itself to the side of your knife. However, be of stout heart! Persevere in the face of adversity! Fear not! All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Heat a T or 2 of oil in the largest frying pan you have – because you want to fry these up in a single layer, as much as possible. Shallow is fine, as long as the surface area is as large as possible. (Alternatively, you can stir fry these in a wok at high temperature, which would probably go faster, but I don’t have a wok at present so this is how to do it sans wok)

As the oil heats, I add cumin seeds first, then as they start to brown, drop in the mustard seeds (quantities are coming later, patience, gentle reader!), and as soon as the mustard seeds pop I drop in the curry leaves, which fry just long enough for me to pick up my already-cut-up okra slices and dump them right in the pan there. Stir around quickly to sear/seal the cut faces of the okra. Reduce heat to medium and settle in for the long haul.

I have never timed this but it’s a strictly go-by-looks sort of operation anyway so I’m not sure timing would be of any real use. How fast the okra browns up and “crispens” is going to be a function of how hot “medium” actually is on your stove, what sort of pan you’re using, the age of the okra (older okra will take longer to properly “cauterize” and may actually get tough if you go too fast), how willing you are to stand and stir, etc.

Since I am unwilling to stand and stir, I’m happy with the medium heat and checking the okra every once in awhile to give it a stir, flip it over, and generally patiently wait for it to get brown and crispy. DO NOT cover with a lid while this is going on, or you will be trapping steam = water = GOO.

Once the okra is all brown and nice and crispy (and it does take awhile), you can add in the onions, garlic, and other spices, and finish cooking.

OK. Now for

THE ACTUAL RECIPE

1/2 lb of okra

1/2 to 3/4 lb of diced potatoes (I actually julienned mine on my mandoline, which turned out roughly 2″ long pieces of potato that looked sort of like short shoestring fries)

2 T oil

1 tsp cumin seed

1 tsp black mustard seed

about a half dozen curry leaves

1 med onion (to taste), diced

2 – 3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp ground red chili (NOT “chili powder”)

1/4 tsp ground fenugreek

OPTIONAL – 1/2 tsp good quality curry powder (not any American grocery store stuff)

2 T cilantro, coarsely chopped

You can make this with just 1 lb of okra (no potatoes) if you wish.

  1. Wash and dry the okra, as above.
  2. While okra is drying, dice or julienne potatoes and fry with as little oil as possible until they are nearly done. This will only take a few minutes because the potatoes are cut small. Set aside.
  3. Heat oil in a large skillet
  4. Fry the cumin seed, then the mustard seed, then the curry leaves (as above).
  5. IMMEDIATELY add the okra, stir well
  6. Reduce to medium – NO LID! Stir well, and stir occasionally till okra turns brown and crispy
  7. Add onions, salt and garlic – stir ’til onions start to brown.
  8. Add turmeric, chili powder, fenugreek, and curry powder (if you are using it). If I’m using curry powder I will typically leave the turmeric out or cut it to 1/4 tsp.
  9. Add the (precooked) potatoes.
  10. Stir well to coat with spices as evenly as possible.
  11. Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice or chapatti, puri, or naan.