Same Same but Different - Part Two: Tamarind

"Ugh, Tamarind."

I was reading Pensées1 by Blaise Pascal last week, and I thought about tamarind.

Pensées is a collection of bits and pieces of writing—half-formed ideas and fragmented thoughts—discovered after Pascal’s death. I’ve always imagined what the scene must have looked like when those notes were found—perhaps a dark, dusty library bereft of its owner and stacks and stacks of books on a desk with a drawer full of messages that made no sense to anyone but the person writing them.

I wonder if the people in 17th-century France who found those notes react to them the way I did in 21st-century Chicago suburb?

Did “To call a king "Prince" is pleasing because it diminishes his rank” or “Man is naturally credulous and incredulous, timid and rash” strike them as a bit too obvious to be profound? Did fragmented thoughts that are a bit too, well, fragmented like “Sceptic, for obstinate,” “He has four lackeys,” or “The cause and the effects of love: Cleopatra” cause them to furrow their brows in confusion too?

Did they find “We must keep our thought secret, and judge everything by it while talking like the people” as delicious as I did? Did they also let out a little tee-hee in agreement at “If a soldier, or laborer, complain of the hardship of his lot, set him to do nothing”?

Did they also respond with a nod and an I-hear-ya to “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know,” or “If our condition were truly happy, we would not need a diversion from thinking of it in order to make ourselves happy,” or “Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute,” or “Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness”?

We’re dealing with the “same same but different“ phenomenon where things look like they’re the same but are, in fact, worlds apart.

My dad died when I was very young, and I’m now older than he was when he died. That fact and the health issues I’ve been having these past few years on top of the ongoing pandemic mean I find myself thinking about my own death more frequently than at any other point in my life. You see, I don’t have Pascal’s intelligence, but I have his habit. My home office is full of Post-it notes, notebooks, and sketchbooks.

One note in particular will, I’m sure, make no sense to whoever finds it after my death: “Ugh, tamarind.”

I don’t remember what set off that note, but I can imagine the level of exasperation that led to the penning of it—the frustration that the note’s brevity belies.

When it comes to global cuisines, I firmly believe that if your goal is to replicate a dish the way it’s typically made in the culture to which it belongs, it’s wise to—as much as possible—use the products that are normally used in that culture. It’s one way to make the margin of error smaller, as those are likely the products that the recipe developers use when testing the recipes.

I’m not talking about securing esoteric ingredients from distant corners of the world; I’m talking about simple things within our power, like making informed choices when choosing what products to use.

In many cases, the same products, regardless of where they’re manufactured, are interchangeable. In just as many cases, that’s not true.

In over a decade of writing about Thai food, several products have given me anxiety. At the top of the list are sriracha sauce and tamarind paste.

Have you noticed Thai oyster sauce doesn’t taste like Chinese oyster sauce, and Thai fish sauce doesn’t taste like Vietnamese nuoc mam or Filipino patis? You can ask any American living in Thailand if the Thai brands of mayonnaise taste anything like what they grew up eating in their home country, and if they have been paying attention, they’ll say no. Those who grew up eating jasmine rice grown in Thailand can tell when they’re eating jasmine rice grown in the US. Those who insist soy sauce is soy sauce is soy sauce should try opening a Japanese restaurant or a sushi bar and use Thai Golden Boy soy sauce as the cooking and dipping soy sauce. Will those who insist Japanese short-grain rice is an acceptable substitute for the kind of sticky rice commonly consumed in Northern and Northeastern Thailand dare to tell Jiro Ono the reverse is true?

In many of these cases, we’re dealing with the “same same but different“ phenomenon where things look like they’re the same but are, in fact, worlds apart.

For example, years ago, when I was a new student in Chicago, I tried making Bangkokian kids’ favorite dish that involved bucatini (which Thais call “macaroni”) stir-fried with chicken, eggs, tomatoes, onions, ketchup, and a splash of Maggi sauce. It tasted fine to the friends with whom I shared it, but it tasted terrible to me. And I didn’t understand why until I realized ketchup manufactured in the US—Heinz in this case—and the type of Maggi found in the international-foods aisle tasted vastly different from the local Thai brands.

In over a decade of writing about Thai food, several products have given me anxiety. At the top of the list are sriracha sauce and tamarind paste.

I’m sure those of you reading this are aware that the sauce called sriracha in the US is nothing like the sauce that Thais call sriracha. And any time I write a Thai recipe that calls for sriracha, I always mean the latter unless otherwise stated. Nine times out of ten, though, when I say sriracha, people’s minds go first to the other one. Comments and questions along the lines of “Wow, this recipe is way too spicy! Something’s wrong!” soon follow.2

Over the years, the sriracha thing has become less of a problem—partly because food media has been educating people about the differences between the two sauces.3

What remains the thorn on my side—the perpetual bane of my existence—is tamarind. In every notebook I have, there are at least four to five references to tamarind—the things I want to say about it, the things I wish I had said about it when I had the chance, the things I wanted to say about it but couldn’t for various reasons. Over time, the anxiety has turned into exasperation. Every time people bring up the subject of tamarind with me, I hold my breath and mentally brace myself.

This issue of The Epestle is getting long, so I’ll get to the point: Friends, when a Thai recipe calls for tamarind, either prepare it yourself4 or use a Thai brand. You have no idea how many complaints I’ve received from people about tamarind-containing recipes of mine only to find out that, ten times out of ten, the culprit is the Indian brand, Tamicon.

To be clear, I have absolutely no problem with Tamicon. It is an excellent product—for what it’s meant to do. The issue with Tamicon when it comes to Thai (and Southeast Asian cooking in general) is its level of concentration. Tamicon is much, much more concentrated in flavor, much darker in color, and much thicker in consistency than any of the typical tamarind paste manufactured for Thai cooking and used by Thai recipe developers.

These products are made from the same ingredients: the pulp of mature sour tamarind and water. However, while Thai manufacturers loosen tamarind pulp with just enough water to make it a pourable paste with light-brown color and bottle it as is, Tamicon’s tamarind has been concentrated into a thick, dark syrup. So if you follow a Thai recipe calling for tamarind paste and you use the same quantity of Tamicon, the result would look strangely dark and taste “wrong.” Likewise, if you use a Thai brand of tamarind in an Indian recipe that expects you to use very concentrated tamarind like Tamicon, you’ll end up with something that looks and tastes off-target. The differences may or may not be a dealbreaker, but they’re there.

You can’t blame people for being confused, though. Both products have “tamarind concentrate” on their labels. How would anyone know they’re different? Without a side-by-side comparison, how would anyone know there are varying degrees of concentration among these concentrates.

But now you know, and I feel less anxious already. Thank you for listening.


Read: Same Same but Different - Part One: My First Baked Potato in Thailand

Consider being a premium subscriber to access the full archive.

1

Read it in English or French (17th-century orthography).

2

It’s impossible to say everything you want to say in a cookbook. Cookbook real estate is expensive, and you can’t preemptively tackle every issue that could occur. You just have to trust that the readers will read the glossary or cooking notes. At least, that’s what editors and copy editors tell authors to calm their anxiety. My experience tells me the authors’ anxiety is always justified, and their fears are often realized.

3

I talked to Thrillist’s Kat Thompson about this in her For the Best Sriracha, Look Beyond That Famous Bottle.

4

See Simple Thai Food for instructions. It’s easy!