Hikayat Havenly: Amba, the "Unifying Condiment"
Beyond simply being nourishment, food can permeate into the sociopolitical fabric of society and shape the lives of people. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where food can even be polarizing. One example includes the ongoing "hummus wars," in which countries have disputed the exact origins of this iconic dip.
However, another condiment has risen not as a source of division, but of unity. Amba, beloved by all, is a dish that has transcended boundaries and connected cultures. This savory and sour dip made from mango-pickled vegetables has been popular in Asia and the Middle East. It is often included in the cuisines of Iraq, India and Pakistan.
Iraq, where Havenly head chef Nieda Abbas is from, has been especially key in sharing this dish with many parts of the world. Amba is said to have originated in the 19th century by way of the influential Sassoon family, also known as the "Rothschilds of the East'' due to their immense wealth. Though they were Baghdad-born Iraqi Jews, they had relocated to Bombay (modern-day Mumbai), India to escape religious persecution. After being exposed to India's abundance of mangoes, the family thought of a lucrative business opportunity, and sent many vinegar-coated barrels of mangoes back to their home country to sell. From there, amba was developed, and grew quickly in popularity.
Iraqi Jewish immigrants, overall, have played a major role in introducing amba to different regions. This was especially the case in the 20th century, when many prominent waves of Jewish migration from Arab and Muslim-majority countries occurred.
As Iraqi Jews migrated, they brought aspects of the culture they had grown up in with them. Today, for instance, amba is very popular in cities like Jerusalem, which has a significant population of Iraqi-Jewish descent. This condiment is often used to accompany offal and meorav yerushalmi (a dish of grilled meat that is a specialty of Jerusalem), as well as the Saturday morning meal on Sabbath.
Amba is popular throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and consumed in a variety of dishes. It is the cornerstone of many cuisines, such as that of Iraq, and it often accompanies fish, seafood, falafels, kibbeh or shish kebab. In other parts of the Arab world, it is consumed with bread as part of the nawashef, a tray of mezzes with small dishes. Of course, many times it is also included in wraps — as is often the case at Havenly!
Amba is typically made of pickled green mangoes, vinegar, salt, turmeric, chili and fenugreek. Sourced in powder form, amba then undergoes a long preparation process before it can be used as a condiment.
At Havenly, as is traditional, amba is always prepared a day in advance because it takes time for its flavor to fully develop after preparation. It is an ongoing process of improvement; amba requires maintenance as it is being made, and a constant effort on part of the chef to ensure it remains a reasonable consistency before it is added to food. When included in food, amba complements it in a sour and spicy manner.
Enjoy a taste of amba in your Havenly falafel wrap or by itself for a bite "electric with acidity and flavor."
This post is part of Hikayat Havenly, a series of food highlights that tell a story of immigration and resilience.