spicy tamarind balls.

Tusia (the other half of vvitalny) has been bringing tiny clear plastic boxes of tamarind balls to rehearsal lately and we’re addicted. They’re so intriguing and incredibly satisfying – sour, with a touch of heat. We can’t get enough.

Tamarind is an interesting food – it’s indigenous to Africa but when we started to think about it, we realized it’s in practically every cuisine we love. We drink tamarind-flavored jaritos with our quesadillas at the Mexican tortilla factory in Bushwick. We keep fresh tamarind paste – imported from Thailand & purchased at the Latino-centric grocery store on Grand Street – on hand for making Indian masalas at home. Apparently, it’s a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. Tusia gets these sweets from her Caribbean co-workers, who inherited a taste for them from their grandparents (they call it tambran) – but the packaging is decidedly Asian. The first box was labeled in (what we assume was) Mandarin. The most recent box is in Thai.

(We’re confused by the addition of the French here…We see an article, or a book!, about the history of the world through the movement of tamarind in the making.)

And yet, though tamarind is everywhere, we can’t seem to find these delectable sweets anywhere. We hunted the aisles of our favorite pan-Asian grocery stores in Chinatown to no avail. We quizzed a friend who’s spent much time in Thailand, but she, too, didn’t know where to find them in New York. We hit up every grocer and bodega catering to a Spanish-speaking clientele in North Brooklyn, but nothing.

En fin. We had no choice but to make them, a decision we should have made from the outset. After all, it’s all there in the packaging: tamarind paste + some pantry staples.

We spent some time reading through recipes online, and were surprised by the diversity of approaches. Some recipes call for brown sugar, others don’t specify. Some for chili powder, others for cayenne, still others for black pepper or garlic (!). A few Central American and Caribbean recipes include a mashed sweet potato. Others start with tamarind pods and lots of water.

Curious, we made these twice. Once with brown sugar and cayenne, and once with granulated sugar and black pepper. (We didn’t have chili powder on hand.)

In both instances we used tamarind paste:

(You can also start with tamarind pods, but it’s more complicated.)

And the winner…?

Granulated sugar and black pepper.

The brown sugar + cayenne batch was good, but something about the brown sugar dulled the sourness of the tamarind, and the cayenne was a bit too strong for our taste memory. Still, we used roughly the same amounts in each test, so if you prefer a different spice or sweetener, the recipe below is still a good measure.

Be forewarned: tamarind is very sticky. We recommend having everything out and measured before you start, so as to not sacrifice too much tamarind to repeated hand washing. If the dough isn’t coming together, and you’ve reached your desired sweetness level, a Trinidadian recipe blog we came across suggests adding a teaspoon or so of flour. (Just a touch, though. You don’t want the flour to inadvertently dull the flavors.)

These come together in just fifteen minutes or so, and last quite a while in the fridge. Natural sour gummies? (We’re on such a homemade candy kick!) Yes please.

If you like tamarind, you will love these.

spicy tamarind balls.

makes about 2 dozen small tamarind balls.

4 oz tamarind pulp
1/2 – 3/4 cup granulated sugar, plus more for rolling
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

1. Put the tamarind pulp, salt and a 1/4 cup of sugar in a bowl, and begin to knead, working through the paste and discarding the seeds as you go. Some seeds will slip out of their translucent skin easily, others will not. Don’t worry too much. Sacrificing some tamarind paste in this step is inevitable.

2. Once all the seeds have been extracted, mix the cayenne or chili powder into the flour and add to the tamarind, kneading to combine. Add brown sugar by the spoonfuls until the paste is at your desired sweetness, and it’s a smooth “dough”. (We added about 1/2 cup brown sugar all told.) The paste will likely still be sticky, but should not stick to your hands and leave a residue.

3. Pinch off pieces of the “dough”, roll into small balls between your palms, and roll in white sugar. Store, covered, in the refrigerator. (They’ll keep for at least 2 weeks!)

Enjoy!

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