Monkeying Around with Tamarind

1717Emperor_Tamarin_by_Peter_SmartAny food which inspires furious and divided loyalty intrigues me. Chilli pepper is a great example. From the “I don’t eat spicy food, I’m, like, probably a supertaster or something” types to the “don’t rub your eyes after shaking my hand” Scotch Bonnet aficionados, it is very rare to meet a human being without a strong opinion on the merits of capsaicin. Many folks entertain a little friendly rivalry when it comes to consuming chilli peppers and there are often tears involved. I myself no longer participate after being thoroughly humiliated by one of my nerdiest friends, a cultural studies PhD, who has a prodigious ability to consume chilli, wasabi, and suchlike irritants. In my circle his name is the collective term for a mass of raw ginger. “Whoa, that’s a klugman,” we say.

Yet I love chilli. Without a healthy respect for chilli most Asian and Latin American cuisine is meaningless. I just prefer to still have a tongue when I am done eating and be able to approach tomorrow’s bathroom duty without fear. My pepper of choice is the bird’s eye chilli (a.k.a. “mouse shit chilli” for its shape), the dangerous little fruit of the species Capsicum frutescens so beloved in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, India, and Cambodia. Once upon a time bird’s eye chilli was considered the hottest chilli in existence, but further research proved it actually hovers around 100,000 on the Scoville scale. For comparison, pepper spray is about 5,000,000 units. Now, that’s hot. Let’s see you eat a law enforcement grade pepper spray sandwich, Klugman. 100,000 is still respectable, however – the peppers above the bird’s eye on the scale have intimidating names like the Naga Viper pepper (excuse me?), the Infinity Chilli, and my favourite, the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. The TSBTP ranks way above the infamous Scotch Bonnet and is another example of how macho people can get when it comes to (CH3)2CHCH=CH(CH2)4CONHCH2C6H3-4-(OH)-3-(OCH3).

So, feeling the need for a burst of heat in my life, I put together my version of milagu kuzambu, which is often called ‘pepper gravy.’ It is, essentially, curry with no vegetables, no meat, nothing in it but spices, curry stripped down to the bare essentials. And, intriguingly, it is made with tamarind, which is a spice I never know what to do with. I have a brick of tamarind pulp in my fridge (it comes in brick form) and very few ideas of how to use it. (Tamarind is not to be confused with the adorable tamarin monkey. Don’t worry, I have no plans to eat monkey. Indiana Jones put me off that one. Tamarind, while we’re on the subject of primates, provides about half the diet of all the ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar. Well done, tamarind.)

palak 003To use tamarind, you hack off a corner of the brick with a heavy chef’s knife. I use a chunk about the same mass as a golf ball. Soak this chunk in a cup or two of just-boiled water for about an hour, and it will fall apart into a kind of unattractive brown goo that tastes like sour candy. Push the goo through a sieve into a bowl, rubbing over and over with a spoon and scraping off the pulp that collects on the bottom of the sieve. Discard the remains, struggle valiantly to clean your sieve, and you are left with a cup or two of delicious brown water which makes the basis for this spectacular pepper gravy.

Milagu Kuzambu

1 lump of tamarind pulp about the size of a golf ball

2 cups boiling water

1 tablespoon dried yellow split peas

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

3 (at least) bird’s eye chillis

1 teaspoon hot curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 large pinch asafoetida

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

Soak the tamarind in the hot water for an hour. Pour through a sieve into a bowl and retain the soaking liquid, rubbing the pulp through with a spoon as described above. Discard any remains in the sieve.

In a small frypan toast the split peas, peppercorns, coriander seeds and cumin seeds until brown but not black. Transfer the spices to a mortar and pestle or food grinder, and grind. The split peas will give you the most trouble, so give up when they are broken but before they are powder. Add the chopped chillis with seeds, curry powder, salt and asafoetida, and grind it a bit more. (Asafoetida is a very strange spice. Uncooked, it smells like an accident. Cooked, it’s like deliciously sauteed leeks. What is not intriguing about a spice which is simultaneously known as both “devil’s dung” and “food of the gods”?)

In a small saucepan, heat the sesame oil. Drop in the mustard seeds and let them sizzle. As soon as they start bursting all over the place and leaping out of the pan scrape in the spice mix and give it a good stir. Add the tamarind water and simmer for half an hour, or until the oil separates. Serve over rice.

Milagu kuzambu is absolutely delicious but hardly a complete meal. The advantage of it is that you can prepare the entire thing ahead of time, leaving only the final simmering, while you prepare the other courses of your Indian feast. I served this with rice, palak paneer (cheese in spinach), and achaari baingan (eggplant and tomato in pickling spices). I made the paneer myself, which is not only amazingly easy but a great way to use up milk approaching the use-by date. In fact, here’s how you do it:

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Paneer (Indian Fresh Cheese)

About a gallon of milk

About 1/3 cup lemon juice

Heat the milk on the stove. Just before it reaches boiling, pour in the lemon juice. As soon as the milk boils it will curdle and separate into curds (white lumps) and whey (yellow fluid). Take off the heat and let sit for about ten minutes to allow the curds to develop some character, then strain through a cheesecloth-lined colander (yes, you will need cheesecloth. I admit cheesecloth is not the most useful tool in the kitchen, but it sure comes in handy when making cheese). You can drink the whey, apparently, but I just toss it because I’m not that concerned with my whey levels. Wrap the cheesecloth in a bundle and gently squeeze the remaining liquid out (I do mean gently. Too energetically and the cheese will escape through the holes in the cheesecloth like so much playdoh). Put the bundle on a plate, put another plate on top of that, and weight down the whole thing with a heavy bottle or book. Dump out the water as it accumulates in the bottom plate. For best, firmest paneer, leave overnight in the fridge before unwrapping.

There it is. Proof I can make a vegetarian meal. Just don’t hold the heat.

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8 comments to Monkeying Around with Tamarind

  • Oh my god, that last picture is making my mouth water.

    I wonder if police pepper-spray is considered food grade, and if you could give a quick mist to a dish. Hm. Probably a bad and not very tasty idea.

  • War Pig

    Tamarind is wonderful. I buy mine in paste form, though, in a jar.

    If you used an acid (vinegar or lemon juice) to make your cheese, you can use the whey to water and feed your roses. They love it.

    Also try it with ice and fresh or frozen strawberries and a banana in a blender. I add a teaspoon of instant coffee as well. I have a cousin who cannot drink milk but can take whey. Said cousin also uses it instead of milk in breads, especially biscuits.

    I like bird’s eye chilies. They are nowhere near as hot as the naga/bhut jolokia/ghost chili. If you are actually, certifiably, insane you may order “Blair’s 16 million reserve”. A concentrated, crystal version of capsaicin. It measures 16 MILLION on the Scoville scale and can be lethal if not diluted. ONE crystal can make a bowl of average, bland, New England chili taste like a bowlful of naga peppers.

    Police pepper spray is commonly between 15-17% capsaicin. You can become inured to it. It doesn’t bother me much as I always ran the tear gas chamber in the service for my unit. I didn’t bother with a mask. One kid said; “I bet there ain’t no gas in here” to a buddy and I heard him. I walked up, ripped off his mask and threw it over to the far side of the gas chamber. He was made into an instant believer, and after watching him bawl as he tried to find and put on his mask, the rest stood without comment.

    Now, if you have certified BEAR strength pepper spray, it’s dangerous and NOT for use on humans. It’s meant to discourage angry grizzly bears. Alaska-rated bear spray starts at 25% and they can use 3 million Scoville base capsaicin, on top of that. Heck that stuff will work on bears, lions, tigers, and probably dinosaurs. Comes in a much bigger can, too. It’s up to 5 times stronger than police spray.

  • Good to know – I am going to backcountry Yellowstone in a month. Let’s hope the bears aren’t inured to capsaicin by now.

  • War Pig

    Not that stuff, they aren’t. Now, in an absolute rage, it may not stop them entirely, but it will put them off and anything less than a mother protecting her cub or an insane adult male will be deterred with a single shot. They usually take off when they see humans, so they don’t get sprayed often enough to become inured.

    I wonder why nobody ever invented a taser with longer needles (to get through fur) for bears?

  • War Pig

    OBTW, backpacking and hiking or guided horseback riding trips? Guided or not, group or singles? I think you need a permit for back country visits. Not sure, haven’t been there in a while. Ask the rangers when you get your permit if bear spray is advisable or legal where you’ll be going.

    The last time I was there we horsebacked it. The tour was with guided, naturally. MUCH better than hiking. The wildlife is used to horses and doesn’t spook as badly. You’re off the ground so you have a better view from horseback and can take better pictures. Not as tiring, either and no worries about someone who cannot keep up. Even if you turn an ankle a you can still ride a horse, while hiking would be iffy. Besides, I like horses. Pricier, though. :-)

  • We were planning on hiking but the guided horseback trip is intriguing. Where did you leave from in the park, do you remember?

  • War Pig

    Oh gads, I don’t remember, been about 20 years now. I checked with the kids and also what little I have left in the way of pictures/journals of the trip (lost in a move with other HHG)….Okay. We took two pack rides in two years. The first one was the Waterfalls tour, which is good in very late summer and early fall after the worst of bug time. We started somewhere near Proposition Creek and ended up near Lake Shoshone. Several days of horse pack camping. The other we took was longer, about a week. We started on the shores of Lake Yellowstone and ended up in the Snake River Canyon somewhere north of Heart Lake. Unless you’re well-heeled, you’ll probably want to take day rides, where you go out and come back the same day. You can check operators in Yellowstone about times, places and pricing, but day rides are naturally a LOT cheaper than pack ride/tours. I believe we paid about $1700-$1800 apiece for the long tour and $1500 for the waterfalls tour. Heaven knows what they run now. Day rides should still be under $200 apiece for the day as they were under $100 then. We took a couple of day rides on our third trip to Yellowstone. Lots cheaper, but not as much fun. They may even offer partial day rides. Used to be they had a half-day ride, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Dunno about now, of course.

    Word of warning, on our second ride, where we crossed the continental divide, up near I believe it was Mt Sheridan, we were freaking snowed upon – on Father’s Day, the middle of June. Kids loved it like Christmas in June, I was not so impressed as my wife had to borrow my jacket to put on top of hers and all I had was my sweater. Got a bit nippy. ;-) So call ahead and ask them what kind of clothes you should bring & if you’ll need bug repellent at the place you’ll be hiking/riding/packing. When you gain altitude in Yellowstone, it gets cool mighty quick sometimes.

  • War Pig

    PS: We got there after the big fire, and a lot of the brush and all was cleared off by the fires and you could see for miles. Also a lot of wildlife out since a lot of cover was gone.