People who are used to eating a lot of Middle Eastern food are generally not afraid of sourness. There should be some element in a Middle Eastern dinner that, if eaten on its own, would make your eyes squint shut, your nose fill with vinegar, and your mouth pucker to a point.
Not all of us eat these things on their own or have an obsession with sour foods, but eating entire lemons whole is not unheard of. We sometimes dust on so much sumac that you can't see the food underneath. After doling out pomegranate molasses, we lick the spoon, and make the face. It's almost unbearable—it brings tears to our eyes. And if you're always trying to find something that's another level of sour, amba, or pickled mango, is a really good one.
According to Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, amba is originally from India, but it has become a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. The key to amba's distinct flavor is fenugreek seeds, which taste a little like celery, but with a nice umami flavor and fragrance. Many good yellow curry powders include fenugreek seeds, so if you can't find them, substituting more yellow curry powder in its place will approximate the flavor. I've included instructions in the recipe for anyone who needs to make this substitution. Middle Eastern amba doesn't always include mango, but fenugreek seems to be the uniting factor in just about all recipes. For instance, cabbage amba is another popular amba pickle. Sham of Vegan Iraqi Food has a wonderful recipe for cabbage amba, with plenty of fenugreek flavor. But in any event, amba is incredibly tart and delicious.
One of the things that makes mango amba so tangy is the fact that you're starting out with an ingredient that's already sour before it even hits the vinegar brine. Instead of standing in the produce aisle gently pressing on every mango to try to find the one that yields to slight pressure, you'll weed through a million ripe, perfect mangoes to find the tough green ones that everyone else rejects. These mangoes are crunchy, tart, and ideal for pickling, since they will soften slightly instead of entirely melting into the vinegar.
While ripe mangoes are a cinch to slice into pieces, unripe mangoes are just a little different, since you have to use a lot more pressure to slice through it, and the peel won't release from the meat very easily. Feel free to use the gifs above as a guide.
Prepping the mangoes is the most time-consuming part of this recipe, but it only takes about ten minutes. Everything else is as simple as boiling the water, vinegar, and seasoning, pouring it over the mango slices, and letting it sit in the fridge for at least a day or two. Like any pickle, amba will keep for a long time. Discard it after a while if it seems off (but, as they say, it probably won't last that long).
Pickled mango | amba
Yields: 2 pints
Active time: 15 minutes
Total time: at least 3 hours 15 minutes
3 green, unripened mangoes *
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3/4 cups water
3/4 cups apple cider vinegar
2 1/4 teaspoons curry powder
3/4 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 1/4 teaspoons ground fenugreek seeds **
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 3/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
- Pit and peel the mangoes and then slice them into thin strips. Coat them in lemon juice. ***
- Pack the mangoes into two pint-sized canning jars.
- In a small saucepan, combine water, cider vinegar, curry powder, turmeric, fenugreek, red pepper flakes, and sea salt. Bring to a boil and then immediately remove from heat. Pour over the jarred mangoes.
- This recipe is designed for 2 pints, but if you need to, feel free to top them off with a tablespoon or two of lemon juice. If the tops are poking out, you can just give it a shake every day for the first few days.
- Store the amba in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours before serving. It is pretty good as a quickle after 3 hours, but it's even better after a few days.
Serving suggestions: This is a very flavorful pickle and should be served with food that doesn't have a lot of flavor and piquancy of its own; use this anywhere you want to add acidity and brightness, like you would with a chutney, relish, or salsa. Serve alongside grilled meats and veggies, burgers, hot dogs, riza sh'ariyeh, and/or a simple salad with a very light dressing. Leave the amount of amba up to your guests instead of plating it for them. Everyone has a different preference for tartness, and while some guests will polish off a whole pint, others will only have one or two pieces (but rest assured, just about everyone will love it).
* The mangoes should be very firm and should not yield to pressure. It's ok if they are a little red, but they should be mostly green (judge by squeezing more than color).
** You can easily find ground fenugreek seeds online or in almost any Indian market. Although they're from the same plant, they taste very different from fenugreek leaves (just like cilantro doesn't taste like coriander seeds). You can sometimes find fenugreek seeds in Middle Eastern markets and health foods stores, but I find that Indian markets are the only really reliable source. If you can't find ground fenugreek seeds, feel free to leave it out and use a total of 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon curry powder for the recipe.
*** See above gifs for instructions on pitting and peeling unripe mangoes. It's a little different than pitting and peeling a ripe mango, since you can't easily separate the flesh from the peel and you have to use a bit more pressure to slice through, and must therefore stabilize it.