As I was preparing dinner the other day, I panicked because the supply of tamarind paste in my pantry was almost finished. I had to scrape the bottom of the bottle to get some or my rasam was not going to have that spicy, tart zing. I had used up most of this sour paste the week before to make puliyotharai (tamarind rice, also called puliyogare) for the Dussehra celebrations.


I wish tamarind was available in bulk in stores like Costco! When I did a product search on Costco’s Web site for tamarind, all I got was a link to Tamarind Hotel in Barbados!

This set me thinking. What is Indian food without tamarind? Apart from being used as a souring agent in cooking, tamarind is used as an ingredient in other Asian countries, especially in Thailand.

The tamarind tree that bears the sweet and sour fruit is native to Asia and northern Africa and is also grown in the Caribbean. The tree can grow up to 75 feet tall and has leaves that consist of 10-18 pairs of leaflets and small, pale yellow flowers. The tamarind tree produces fruit in the form of brown pods that are about 2 to 6 inches long. Some folks even consume roasted seeds of the tamarind fruit. I thought people only used the seeds to play pallanguzhi—an old South Indian game played on slotted wood.

Indians mostly use tamarind with legumes (lentils, chickpeas, or beans) and meat. Tamarind is the key ingredient used to make “sonth” for chaat.

The fruit is usually sold shelled and dry—it must be soaked in water and seeds and other debris removed before usage. Only the dissolved portion is then added to food. Alternatively and more conveniently, tamarind paste may be used with the same effect, though the former retains more flavor of tamarind in the dishes I prepare. The sour and fruity taste of tamarind combines well with the spice of chillies and gives many South Indian dishes their hot and sour character and their dark color—rasam, sambar, chutneys, rice dishes, curries etc. The list is endless.

A versatile south Indian dish using tamarind is pulikkachal or tamarind chutney. When this sour and spicy chutney is mixed with rice (puliyotharai), it is a dish fit for parties and special occasions. Vaishnavite Hindu temples serve puliyotharai, among other items, to devotees as part of prasad or holy offerings to the Lord. Pappadums, vaththal (rice crispies) and potato chips complement the rice dish very well. Alternatively, the chutney can be had with dosas, idlis, and even upma. My dad loves to have his toast smeared with the chutney for a spicy start to his day. And my mom loves to spice up her curd rice.

Pulikkachal requires many ingredients, but the result is a tantalizing addition to one’s cooking repertoire. And the best part is, this chutney has an amazingly long shelf life—5 to 6 months in the fridge. Each time my bachelor brother visits from the east coast, I pack him a box of pulikaachal to make his so-called cooking life easier. All he has to do is mix it with rice!

1 cup tamarind paste
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp sesame seeds (sesame and coriander seeds are to be dry roasted and ground into a fine powder to be added to the chutney later)
1 tsp mustard seeds
4 tbsp peanuts
4 tbsp cashews
1 tbsp urad dal
1 tbsp chana dal
5 tbsp gingelly oil
pinch asafoetida
8-10 curry leaves
1 tsp turmeric powder
5 dry red chillies (split into smaller pieces)
Salt to taste
2-3 small pieces jaggery (optional)

Heat the oil in a wok. Add the mustard seeds and let them splutter.

On medium heat, add asafoetida, curry leaves, urad dal, chana dal, peanuts and cashews and let them turn a slight golden brown.

Add the turmeric powder and chili powder.

Next, add the tamarind pulp to the wok, and immediately add half a cup of water as well. Add salt to taste and cover the wok. Allow for the entire tamarind mixture to cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Beware, this preparation may splatter, so use caution and a lid to cover!)

Finally, add the coriander and sesame seed powder.

There are several ways to making this chutney. Mysorians, for example, like to add a tinge of jaggery to the chutney to lend it a sweet variation.

When adding the chutney to 2 cups cooked rice to make puliyotharai, please make sure the rice is cooled down and the grains are separated gently. Optionally, you could add a spoonful of ghee or a tablespoon of gingelly oil to enhance the taste. The aroma and taste of this chutney will leave you dumbfounded!

I recently went over to my friend’s place for lunch. I was particularly fond of Sudha Musrif’s fried green tomato chutney. The tantalizing blend of tomatoes with tamarind, coconut and garlic is truly worth sharing. A few days later I made my own version of it.

Green Tomato Chutney
20 small green tomatoes (diced)
1 tsp tamarind paste
2 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 large pod garlic
1 medium-sized onion diced
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp Mustard seeds
3-4 green chillies
Curry leaves
Pinch of asafoetida
3 tbsp grated coconut
1 tbsp sesame seeds
Salt (to taste)
Cilantro for garnishing

In a blender grind the sesame seeds and coconut into a thick paste and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil in a wok. Add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds and let them splutter. Add the curry leaves and asafoetida.

Fry the onions and garlic to a slight golden brown.

Add the tomatoes, salt, and turmeric powder.

Add the sesame seeds and coconut paste. Cook the chutney for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the tamarind, stir and simmer for another 5 minutes.

Lastly, garnish with finely cut coriander leaves.

The chutney is great with both, rice and chapati. Tamarind tends to slow down the cooking process, so add it in after the tomatoes have cooked well.

Vaidehi Madabushi loves cooking and is a connoisseur of great-tasting vegetarian food.