amba fish tacos

amba fish tacos

I’m back in Hong Kong, and thinking about all the wonderful food from our trip to Chicago (and also briefly Austin, Philadelphia, NY, and NJ). When we were at home with friends and family we cooked nothing but dolma, and when we were out and about we ate nothing but tacos. There are a million amazing taquerias in Chicago, so no matter where we happened to be, whether visiting my in-laws or my sister on the north side, friends on the south side, my family in the suburbs, passing through a random neighborhood on the go, or driving down familiar streets… we could always find good tacos within minutes.

But there was one day I actually made some tacos at home for a change, and I just had to share them with you, because they’re my current favorite thing to make for dinner: beer-battered fish tacos with quick-pickled amba, cilantro, radishes, and a little squeeze of lime juice.

Amba, in case you haven’t encountered it, is essentially pickled green mango—it’s unbelievably tangy and bright, and it goes perfectly with fried food. Store-bought versions are almost always made with mango, but some homemade versions are even made with cabbage, carrot, or peppers (the uniting feature is that they’re all pickled in a fenugreek brine. Traditionally, amba is served with falafel (in Iraq and many other places), so it’s no surprise that it also works wonderfully with perfectly crispy Mexican-lager-battered tilapia. Here, instead of classic amba sauce made with green mango, I’ve chosen semi-ripe mangoes, which are delicious on these tacos as more of a slaw than a condiment.

amba fish tacos
amba fish tacos

amba fish tacos

yield: 20 tacos (about 2-3 tacos per serving)
total time: 45 minutes
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amba (quick pickled mango)

  • ½ of 1 medium red onion, sliced thinly

  • Apple cider vinegar

  • 1 large semi-ripe mango, peeled and julienned*

  • ¾ teaspoon yellow curry powder (preferably fenugreek seed heavy)

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

  • Salt, to taste (about ⅛ teaspoon)

  • 1 pinch crushed red pepper

  1. Soak the red onion in a couple tablespoons apple cider vinegar for 10 minutes.

  2. Strain the red onion (discard the oniony vinegar), and combine with the mango, curry powder, extra virgin olive oil, salt, crushed red pepper, and some fresh apple cider vinegar to taste (about 1 teaspoon). Set aside.

the tacos

  • 1-2 cups neutral oil, for frying (e.g., canola, sunflower, peanut, etc.)

  • ¾ cups all purpose flour (90g) + about ⅓ cup more for dredging

  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper

  • ¼ teaspoon salt + more to taste

  • Half of an 11.2 ounce bottle Mexican-style lager

  • 1 ½ pounds tilapia (675g), cut into about 20 pieces

  • 20 small corn tortillas, warmed for a few seconds in the microwave or on the stove

  • Amba/pickled mango (above)

  • 5 limes, each cut into 4 wedges

  • 8 radishes, sliced thinly

  • Cilantro leaves for garnish

  1. Let ¾-inch of oil heat in a 10-inch frying pan (preferably nonstick or cast iron) set over medium heat, and make the batter while you wait on the oil to heat. The oil is ready when you dip the end of the fish in it and it immediately sizzles.

  2. In a small mixing bowl, combine the flour, black pepper, and ¼ teaspoon salt, then pour in the half bottle of beer, mix everything together (don’t overmix, and enjoy the leftover beer while you cook), and set aside.

  3. Pat the fish dry with paper towels, and season with more salt (to taste). Once the oil is hot, dredge the fish in flour, shake off all the excess, and dip in the batter. Remove the fish from the batter and flap the fish on the side of the bowl once or twice to let the excess drip off.

  4. Gently lower the fish into the hot oil, and then repeat with about 4 more pieces. Let them cook for about 3 minutes per side (carefully flip them over once they’ve turned golden brown on one side, and cook thick pieces a bit longer). Lower the heat if they brown too quickly, and keep an eye on them.

  5. Remove the fried fish to a paper towel-lined plate, and work in batches until they’re all fried (you can keep the plate in a 200°F oven for about 30 minutes to keep them warm).

  6. Build the tacos at the very last second before eating (or set up a taco bar/taco table if you’re cooking for a group). Each corn tortilla should be topped with a piece of fish, some pickled mango, radishes, and cilantro leaves. Serve with a lime wedge on the side.

Make ahead the day before: Prep all the components (mix together dry ingredients for batter, cut the fish into pieces, prep the limes, radishes, and cilantro). Make the mango topping and store in the refrigerator overnight. Soon before frying and serving, set everything out on the table or buffet. Whisk together the batter and fry the fish about 30 minutes before you plan to eat. Bring the fish to the table while they’re still hot.

How to store leftovers: Leftovers keep in the refrigerator for a couple days, and can be reheated in a toaster oven at 350°F until crispy on the outside and warmed through. They’ll be a little dryer leftover, but still delicious. The mango topping keeps in the refrigerator for several days. You can even freeze everything if you’d like to store it longer than a couple days (freeze the fish on a plate or sheet pan, then place in a tightly sealed plastic bag, and reheat in the oven. Keep the mango slaw in the freezer, and then let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight, or microwave it on low until it thaws. The texture of the mango will be softer after thawing, but it’s still super delicious and holds up pretty well. And, of course, corn tortillas freeze beautifully).

* Semi-ripe mangos are firm, but yield slightly to pressure. Their flesh is tangy and sweet, and firm enough to hold its shape when sliced. Slice a bit off the bottom to steady it, then slice big fillets from the wide sides, and little fillets from the skinny sides. Peel the fillets with a vegetable peeler. Slice thinly, then julienne the slices (use the following GIF series as a guide).

B-min.jpg

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amba slaw

amba slaw

I recently wrote a bit about the shared culinary roots of a few of my favorite South Asian and Middle Eastern dishes. The article focused mostly on biryani, but I also briefly mentioned one of my favorite Iraqi foods: amba! Amba originated as pickled mango in southern India (and it continues to be pickled mango in door of my grandmother's refrigerator), but I learned from my friend Sham that in Iraq, amba can be just about anything pickled in a fenugreek brine. It's one of those foods that's always developing and adapting to include different veggies.

This salad is inspired by some of the veggies typically used to make amba in Iraq, like cabbage, mango, and carrot. But instead of turning them into a traditional pickle, I shredded the cabbage and turned it into a bright summery slaw, with a fenugreek vinaigrette. While this salad is primarily inspired by Iraqi amba, it might also remind you a little bit of Vietnamese green mango salad. In fact, I'm pretty sure that's what inspired me to add fresh cilantro to it. It's vegan, gluten free, healthy, not too expensive, and it goes with just about everything. I can't possibly list all the things, but I'll name some of my favorites:

amba slaw
amba slaw

This slaw is the perfect side dish to liven up a monochromatic meal. Bring it to any pot luck, and everyone's mood will instantly brighten. It's a fabulous topping for a black bean burger, especially with a sesame bun. It's so delicious on fish tacos (oh my gosh, now I'm having regrets about not making this a fish taco with amba slaw post). And I haven't actually tried this idea yet, but I have a feeling it would be delicious in fresh spring rolls.

The dressing in this salad is basically a less acidic, much mellower version of the brine that I use to pickle mangoes. Even though it's not mouth-puckeringly tart (something you want in a pickle, but not so much in a salad), it still gives me all the amba feels, and it's one of my favorite things about this recipe. In fact, I recently served this to some friends who have two little kids, and their one-year-old spent the whole dinner just sucking the dressing off of the mango pieces, so it sounds like this one is a winner (I know pretty much nothing about children, but I do know that they're honest and don't like most foods, so that feels like a definite success).

amba slaw

amba slaw

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serves: 8 as a side

active time: 10 minutes with a food processor, 20 minutes by hand
total time: 25 to 40 minutes

  • 10 ounces red cabbage (about 1/2 of 1 head), shredded*

  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 teaspoon yellow curry powder**

  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or to taste)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • packed 1/4 to 1/2 cup cilantro leaves (to taste)

  • 1 pound semi-ripe mangoes (about 2 mangoes), julienne or cut into match-sticks***

  • 12 ounces carrots (about 2-3 carrots), julienne or cut into match sticks*

  1. Soak the cabbage in cold water while you're prepping the rest of the ingredients (this will prevent its color from unattractively bleeding). Strain, rinse, and dry it after about 10 to 30 minutes.

  2. Combine the apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, yellow curry powder, crushed red pepper, and salt in a salad bowl.

  3. Whisk the salad dressing together, and then immediately pile on the dried cabbage, mango julienne, and carrot julienne. Toss everything together a few times, then add the cilantro leaves and toss together until everything is coated evenly.

* To make it easier to shred the cabbage, feel free to use a food processor. Use the slicer attachment for the cabbage, and use the grater attachment for the carrots. Make sure you always use the plastic pusher to send veggies through the feed tube.
** Try to find a blend with fenugreek in it to make this really taste like amba, or mix up a batch of my yellow curry powder, which has a decent amount of fenugreek. But if you can't find a curry blend with fenugreek seeds, it'll still taste delicious.
*** Whatever you do, don't use super ripe mangoes, which will turn to mush when you mix everything together. Amba is made from unripe green mango, so it's better to err on the side of unripe for this recipe. When I developed this recipe, I used semi-ripe mangoes, which were still firm but yielded very slightly to pressure (they're not hard as rocks, but they're definitely not soft).

amba slaw