Tamarind and turmeric are both popular additions to South Asian food, but they are two unrelated spices with different culinary applications. Familiarize yourself with their respective benefits before attempting to use either of them. We will take a closer look at both of them below in this SPICEography Showdown.
How do tamarind and turmeric differ?
Tamarind and turmeric have little in common aside from geography — they show up in cuisine from the same parts of the world. Tamarind is the fruit of a leguminous tree. It is tart and cooks use it to add a sour note to various South Asian dishes but it is associated mainly with Indian food. It grows in pale brown pods that contain a sticky, dark rust-colored pulp.
Turmeric is a rhizome related to ginger and which looks exactly like ginger but with a yellow tint. You will be able to see the yellow color even before you peel it but that color is particularly striking once you peel it. That color is its most distinctive property and is usually why cooks use it. For the most part, turmeric is not used for flavoring purposes.
You can buy dried tamarind pods in some grocery stores that sell South Asian produce but it is more common to see it as a compressed paste or a concentrate. The dried whole pods are not a user-friendly form as you will have to deal with the shells and the seeds. Other options include frozen pulp and syrup. Your options with regard to turmeric are far more simple. You can use turmeric fresh or in its dried and powdered form. Like tamarind, it is sold in Indian grocery stores and other retailers that cater to South Asians.
Can you use tamarind in place of turmeric and vice versa?
The simple answer to this is no. These two spices are too different for you to use them as substitutes for each other. Tamarind will not provide a bright yellow color and turmeric will not provide tamarind’s tartness. You can use them in the same types of dishes but if you were to switch them, you would completely change the character of the dishes in which they were used.
Use tamarind to provide certain meat dishes with a deep brown color by including it in the marinade. Note that when you do this you will also be changing the flavor profile. Use turmeric in some dishes that require tamarind or even to give a nutritional boost to some beverages. When you do this, it will give the dish or beverage a bright yellow color without making it tart. If you use too much fresh turmeric, you may also make it bitter.
When should you use tamarind and when should you use turmeric?
Use tamarind in South Asian stir-fried dishes, Indian chutneys and in curries. In Mexico and the Caribbean, tamarind is used as a flavoring in sodas and is sometimes added to other beverages. A less traditional application for it is in barbecue sauce where tamarind will provide a sour note in place of vinegar.
Use turmeric for making English-style curries, for which you will need a turmeric-heavy curry powder blend. Fresh turmeric can be added to smoothies and you can use either form as a food coloring. In addition, you can add turmeric to dry rubs to give grilled meats a yellow hue.