If you are using fresh local tomatoes at their peak, they may be very juicy. After coring, strain the excess liquid through a fine-mesh strainer, reserving ½ cup to add to the dish in step 3. Plum tomatoes are preferred because they hold their shape better than larger tomato varieties; they are usually sweeter and less acidic as well. However, any type of tomato will suffice, especially vine ripened tomatoes at the height of summer.
The tamarind fruit yields an intriguing flavor that appears in the cuisines of India, Southeast Asia, Persia, and Mexico. Tamarind is redolent of apricots and dates and imparts a tangy, sour flavor. It is used as a base for sauces, a condiment, a soft drink flavoring, a sweetmeat, and as a folk remedy for ailing intestines, livers, and kidneys.
Tamarind also has a connection to the Middle East. For one thing, the word “tamarind” is derived from the Arabic tamr hindi, meaning “Indian date.” Tamarind first appeared in the souqs of the Levant from India via Persia around the seventh and eighth centuries. Despite its place in Persian cuisine, tamarind never gained wide acceptance in the Middle Eastern repertoire.
Aleppian Jews, however, flavor many of their dishes with tamarind concentrate, or ouc (pronounced OO-c), and many still make ouc from scratch, despite the widespread availability of quality concentrates in local Syrian food shops. It’s important to use a good-quality tamarind; it can make or break a dish. Some ouc specialists start out with 20 or 30 pounds of tamarind pulp, enough for at least several months’–if not a full year’s–supply.
Ouc is derived from the pulp found in the pods that grow from the hardy tamarind tree. Latin American, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern grocers sell dried tamarind pods and cakes of the pulp, intact or compressed in large sticky blocks.
To make ouc, the pulp is soaked and strained to remove any seeds and plant matter, and to extract the fruit’s flavor. This soaking and straining procedure is repeated up to 3 times. The tamarind liquid is reduced by half and then combined with sugar and lemon juice and boiled until viscous, nearly black, and lip-smackingly sour. It is fine to use ouc sparingly, as it can last for a year in the fridge.
Ouc is a subtler souring agent than lemon, tangier than pomegranate syrup, and has a deeper flavor than tomato. Ouc while itself rather acidic, enhances other acids, such as tomato paste, apricot, and lemon juice, rounding them out with a vibrant tang and earthiness.