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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tacos árabes | pork shawarma

tacos árabes

Tacos árabes are pork shawarma tacos from Puebla, Mexico; they were created by Lebanese and Iraqi immigrants in the early 20th century. This ingenious adaptation combines Middle Eastern technique (spit-roasting layers of marinated meat) with local Mexican ingredients (pork and lime).

My oven is about the size of a large shoebox, so you can bet that I, like you, do not own a spit or anything remotely like it. But regardless, I’m always trying to recreate shawarma at home. Luckily, there are a bunch of good ways to approximate it without a spit, and while no at-home version will ever taste exactly the same as the real deal, each technique has its own unique pros and cons.

tacos árabes
tacos árabes
tacos árabes
tacos árabes

I go back and forth about which is my favorite, but lately I’ve been obsessively using this really easy technique where you marinate, layer, slow-roast, thin-slice, and sear. It’s partly inspired by Serious Eats’ Tacos Árabes technique, but with one really important difference: instead of cooking it in a loaf pan, I roast it in a wide skillet, which allows the juices to run off and concentrate, and the outside to roast beautifully. Because it’s got so much exposed surface area, the outside bits end up tasting exactly like real shawarma, and the inside ends up getting all seared and delicious eventually.

In order to roast it in an open pan without the whole thing toppling over and falling apart, you’ve got to layer the slices in particular way, which actually approximates spit-layering. Instead of just stacking them straight up, you create an overlapping rough pentagon, and continue layering this way. It has a lot of structural integrity, which means you don’t actually need a skewer going through the center (or the sides of a loaf pan) to hold it together.

tacos árabes
tacos árabes
tacos árabes
tacos árabes

tacos árabes | pork shawarma

yield: 6 to 8 servings
active time: 35 minutes
total time: about 6 hours
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for a halal version, try my
chicken shawarma

  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons lime juice (90g)

  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cumin (8g)

  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon oregano (2g)

  • between 2 teaspoons - 1 tablespoon salt (12-18g), to taste

  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (1g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom (1g)

  • 2 teaspoons paprika (4g)

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper (2g)

  • 1 large onion, sliced thinly (250-315g sliced)

  • 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder (1350g)

  1. Place the pork shoulder in the freezer, and set a timer for 1 hour (this makes it easier to slice thinly).

  2. Combine the lime juice, cumin, oregano, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, paprika, and black pepper.

  3. Toss the onions together with a few tablespoons of the marinade until they are very evenly coated.

  4. Thinly slice the semi-frozen pork, and toss it together with the rest of the marinade until it’s very evenly coated.*

  5. Preheat the oven to 250° F (121° C) once the pork is sliced, and lightly oil a 10 to 12-inch oven-proof skillet.

  6. Build a layer of overlapping pieces of pork, leaving a border of at least 1 inch between the pork and the walls of the skillet. Add a layer of onions, followed by another layer of pork, and continue until all the ingredients are used up. When layering, make sure your pieces of pork overlap a little, aim for making a pentagon or square with them, make sure it doesn’t taper too much as you build upwards, and squish it down every few layers to make sure it’s stable and compact.

  7. Bake for about 4 1/2 hours, until the pork is very tender and crispy on the outside. About once every hour or so, baste the shawarma with the juices collecting around the edges.

  8. Once it’s done, remove the shawarma from the skillet to a cutting board (don’t throw out the juices!), and let it rest for about 20 minutes before slicing.

  9. Remove the juices to a small bowl or measuring cup, and allow them to separate for a minute. Rinse out the pan.

  10. Peel off the top of the shawarma, thinly slice it, and then thinly slice off the crispy edges from the shawarma. Set these aside in a bowl (they don’t need to be seared). Thinly slice the rest of the shawarma.**

  11. Heat the empty cast iron skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes. Use a spoon to skim about a tablespoon of the fat off of the surface of the reserved juices, and add it to the hot skillet. Swirl to coat, and then add about 1/3 of the sliced shawarma. Stir it frequently for about 5 minutes, until nicely browned. Remove to a bowl, and repeat with the remaining batches, adding a little more fat each time.

  12. Taste the finished shawarma. If it needs more seasoning, discard the remaining fat from the surface of the juices, and use some of the juices at the bottom to season it a little more. They’re quite salty and acidic, and add a ton of flavor, so use them very sparingly.

for serving

  • banadurah harrah, or your favorite salsa

  • thin pita bread, or tortillas (best for wrapping, rather than stuffing)

  • lime wedges

  • labneh or Greek yogurt

  • cilantro

* You can make ahead to this point, and let it marinade up to overnight, or you can bake it right away (it makes little difference).
** You can even make the whole dish ahead up to this point. Cook and slice the shawarma the day before you plan to serve, reserve the juices, and then sear at the last minute. The fat will solidify in the fridge overnight, and the juices will gel, but you can use it just like butter the next day (throw it in the pan and let it melt).

tacos árabes

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