Sweet and Sour Tamarinds for Tết

imageHard work. Peeling sour green tamarinds to make sweet and sour Tết preserves. My sister-in-law and I have already spent a couple of hours on this, and we still have hours to go. When tamarinds are ripe, the shells separate from the fruits and come off easily, but when they are green, we have to pick them off, bits at a time, with the tip of a knife. The biggest challenge is to avoid cutting through the four long fibers that run the length of each pod, or cutting nicks in the fruit, either of which would make the finished product less pleasing to the eye.

We still have to remove the seeds, another challenge, because the fruits are firm and easy to break, like pieces of a hard apple. The brown pods on the left are soaking in water to make them just a little easier to work with, and the peeled ones on the right are soaking in salt water. Later, my mother-in-law will show us both the right proportions of vinegar and sugar to add to the seeded fruits, and then we’ll leave them to pickle for a week to ten days.

In the meantime, we’ll be making all kinds of other Tết preserves, including sweet and sour vả (a type of local fig), and of course dưa món, assorted dried vegetables in slightly sweet fish sauce, which we eat with the Tết sticky rice cakes. In the photo below, the white round shapes in jars on the left are vả figs, the long white shapes in jars at the top right are tamarinds. The mixture of multicoloured vegetables in jars is the finished dưa món. Below are the dried vegetables for making dưa món at home for people who don’t have time to cut and dry their own carrots, spring onion bulbs, garlic, chilis and other vegetables according to taste that go into this preserve.


I’m not too crazy about the tamarind preserve because it’s bland and more sweet than sour. My sister-in-law feels the same and says she prefers it with chilis added, so that it’s spicy, sweet and sour at once. We have decided to suggest this to our mother-in-law tonight. Hopefully, she will agree.

About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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7 Responses to Sweet and Sour Tamarinds for Tết

  1. Karen Zey says:

    I love the way you juxtapose the cooks’ labouring fingers with the final thrill of taste on the tongue.

  2. Erin says:

    Love the pictures! Could you add something to make the preserves more sour, too?

    You’ll have to let us know whether your mother-in-law agrees on the chilis!

  3. Don’t think I’ve ever seen, never mind eaten, a tamarind. Interesting how many vegetables are picked or bottled. People here used to make pickles and chutneys, and bottle fruit in kilner jars, but I guess most people nowadays, if they have excess fruit or vegetables, tend to freeze them. So all the interesting recipes have been lost. Your mother-in-law must be kept extremely busy with all this work. Preparing the tamarinds seems to be very tedious work. She must be pleased to have help.

    • Chris says:

      Ripe tamarinds are dark brown and sweet. And easy to peel, because the pods become brittle. The fruit inside changes from crisp to soft, almost like a prune in texture. People in Viet Nam are making fewer preserves than before too, preferring to buy them instead because no one has time for all the work involved anymore. And you are spot on–this is incredibly tedious work. Not something I would choose to do. So many other Tet preserves are easier to make.

      • Having helped make, and having tasted, the genuine article, then your tastebuds will know if a bought product lives up to the true flavour. Too many people nowadays have nothing to compare fast food with, so are happy to eat rubbish, one glance at the ingredients showing the quantity of artificial sweeteners, flavouring and colouring, as well as substitute ingredients in the product.

  4. Pingback: P is for Preserves and my Favourite Vietnamese Chilli Paste | Chris Galvin

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