Sampaloc (tamarind) is at the tail end of peak harvest season in Southern Luzon! Tamarindus Indica is believed to have originated in Africa but is also considered native to India. Enjoyed both in its unripened and ripened form, tamarind figures notably in the cuisines from India to Thailand and Southeast Asia. A scraggly, hardy tree of the Leguminosae family, it thrives throughout the Philippines. It does well in windswept and coastal areas, resistant to droughts, and is often found in backyard gardens.
At the beach in Batangas recently, I noticed a particularly healthy sampaloc tree laden with hundreds of pods of ripe and unripe fruit. Tempted to take some, I was warned by a nearby construction foreman that the tree housed a â€œbeingâ€ that I best not irritate. Not one to cause supernatural angst, I headed instead to the Nasugbu town market and was treated to what must have been the seasonal motherload of sampaloc. Depending on the weather, sampaloc is readily available from May to February. At its most abundant around September or October, a heaping handful can be purchased for just P5, a culinary bargain.
Available in most metro wet markets, supermarkets and weekend produce markets, sampaloc is delicious and affordable. Pick fruits that are firm and fuzzy to the touch. When peeled, the unripe fruit must be relatively difficult to extract (left specimen in photo above). It is nearly inedible because it is so tart and acidic. Unripe fruit is best used to make Sinigang broth (in turn used as the base for any number of Sinigang Soups). Filipino Sinigang broth is really quite unique in that most cultures use the riper fruit to flavor dishes (including many Thai and Vietnamese dishes).
The ripe fruit is easy to extract from their typically brittle skins. Ripe fruit is medium to dark brown and the acids have miraculously turned into a sweet/sour pulp that is used for candies and confections, flavoring, etc. While I like local unripe tamarind, I prefer the large plump and positively sweet ripe Thai Tamarind (available at some groceries and bazaars). It is so sweet you can just sit there and peel several pods and pop them like candy. Local ripe tamarind can be made into a sweet or candy by extracting the pulp, adding tons of sugar and cooking it until it is thick and viscous. This is then wrapped with more sugar or rock salt.
Done properly, I believe a Sugpo Sinigang with Kangkong (Prawn Tamarind Soup with Swamp Cabbage) rivals any of the great soups of the region such as the Thai Tom Yang Gung. Please see my recipe for Sinigang broth in the recipe section. Sweet Tamarind Pulp is an excellent flavoring agent for sweet and sour sauce that is poured over a whole fried fish.