A seemingly innocent, tangy condiment – one popular in Israeli, Indian and Iraqi cuisines, among others – encapsulates the story of how ethnic, class, cultural and physical boundaries are crossed in the Middle East, and beyond. You can love amba, you can hate it, but you definitely cannot ignore it or its potent smell, which stems from a mixture of fenugreek, vinegar, turmeric and mango ("amba," means mango in the Indian language of Marathi).
The origin of amba reflects tortuous foodways across the Indian Ocean. The common urban legend is that it was invented in the late 19th century by members of the Baghdadi-born Sassoon family of Bombay, whose discovery of the mango led them to send barrels of it, coated in vinegar, to Basra port, thus confirming its role in the story of the Jewish culinary diaspora, with roots in Iraq.
Remaining persistent in form and ingredients over the years, amba took global leaps across diasporic communities, while assuming different meanings and uses in the process. Israelis will often tell you it is Indian, even though Mumbai’s Jewish community typically eat locally made chutneys and pickles instead. In the Arabian Gulf, in a manner that’s similar to the way many Indian cuisines use pickles, it is eaten with rice yet retains the name amba.
Since Iraqi immigrants brought amba to Israel in the 1950s to accompany the traditional Shabbat morning meal (eggs cooked overnight with eggplant), it has penetrated Israeli and Palestinian cuisine and made its way into Mediterranean-style restaurants around the world. In the 1980s, it skipped to being a sauce accompanying shawarma and falafel, balancing their fattiness through its savory-sourness. Today, a quintessential ingredient in street food in Israel, amba is served in many restaurants along with tahini; some people even add it to French fries in the form of spicy ketchup.
At the Hatikva market in south Tel Aviv, where homemade kubbeh with amba is served in the stalls, a delicatessen owned by the Ofer family – whose members claim that their grandfather was the first to bring amba to Israel – can be found alongside a shop selling delicacies that’s owned by the Turkish Amiga family. In Or Yehuda, in central Israel, there is “Little Iraq,” which markets “original Iraqi amba.”
During the 1991 Gulf War, when some of Saddam Hussein’s Scuds fell on Iraqi neighborhoods in Ramat Gan, the joke was that the missiles had targeted these areas because of the strong smell of amba.
In contrast to hummus and falafel, however, amba has never been politicized as a “national” Israeli food, per se. It continues to be marketed primarily as something that’s authentically Iraqi or Indian – not as a bona fide Israeli product. But it continues to be a marker of Iraqi-Jewish Diaspora identity, with the aromas of homemade versions still permeating those households. Moreover, despite or maybe due to its apparent Iraqi roots, amba has been adopted in food stalls on Arab streets both inside and outside the Green Line in Israel, not to mention further afield.
Highly popular restaurants specializing in modern Israeli or Middle Eastern cuisine (depending on who you ask) are now an important part of the culinary landscape in many of the world’s cities, and amba is often featured on their menus. At Zahav in Philadelphia, award-winning Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov includes amba in a sabih dish (Iraqi-style eggplant sandwich) with heirloom tomatoes, as well as with fermented cauliflower stems, turmeric and beet-brined egg. Chef Meir Adoni’s NYC Nur offers horias – lamb kebab grilled in pita and served with eggplant, amba and market salad.
After following a winding route that has led to the United States and to Europe from India, Iraq and Israel/Palestine, you can also find amba in London, thanks to the rising popularity of Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine there. Local Palestinian restaurants are serving it alongside falafel, observes Jewish-Iraqi food scholar Sami Zubaida. At a number of local eateries, some opened by Israeli-born chefs, it is served in a variety of dishes: At Ottolenghi, it is combined with a Greek yogurt sauce and served with lamb kebabs, grilled chicken or fried; at a foodie favorite brunch spot called the Good Egg, it is part of a bacon sandwich; and it is mixed with labneh and yogurt at the Palomar and her sister restaurant, the Barbary, which won top spot in the recent TimeOut list of the best 50 restaurants in London.
Eyal Jagermann, the Israeli-born head chef of the Barbary, tells us that, “Amba is one of my favorite topics. Firstly, I grew up on it; it’s in my blood, as much as tahini and hummus.” If prepared correctly, the flavor of the pickled condiment, which he describes as “ultra-hyperactive, supercharged, out of this world,” just “transcends, in several dishes.”
Amba, says Jagermann, has become one of the most substantial ingredients in London’s emerging new Middle Eastern cuisine. The new Iraqi pop-up, Juma, serves it as a salsa-like accompaniment to torched mackerel, or as a dip alongside Aleppo-style kibbeh.
The key to the so-called gourmetization of amba, according to Israeli-born chef Avinadav Levy, was Michelin-star chef Joël Robuchon, who took to amba and carried a sample back to Europe following a visit to Israel, during Jerusalem’s 3000th year celebrations, in 1996. In his atelier Robuchon serves a dish of egg, eggplant and lemon, with coriander seeds that seems to have an amba-and-sabih quality.
We spoke to several leading Jewish and Arab chefs in Israel in order to get a take on local, contemporary cuisine through its use of amba. In upscale kitchens the condiment has apparently undergone a conversion from a dominant sauce to a spice. Speaking from Japan, chef Meir Adoni explains that, “in New York we use amba as a spice and as a raw material for all purposes, just like soy and ginger Amba is the Middle Eastern equivalent of umami. It’s all because of the hilbeh (fenugreek paste), which creates a crazy mixture of emotions and flavors. It’s addictive and for me it’s one of the flavors that are identified with who we are in the Middle East.”
At his restaurants in Jerusalem and in London, Assaf Granit says he serves an amba paste, made with labneh mixed into it. He also uses amba as a spice for fish and fresh vegetable dishes, as well as in the famous Jerusalem mixed grill.
Granit: “Amba is a very precise indicator of our cuisine in Israel. Nearly everything we call modern Israeli cuisine is a result of crossing one boundary or another. This refers to different waves of immigration, different neighborhoods in major cities and to different communities. There are many such influences that create dishes or specific food cultures, and amba is an amazing example of this. Here in Israel it took root mainly as a spice for grilled internal organs (liver or Jerusalem mixed grill), beyond its home use as a paste. The wider public recognizes it as a flavor, as a kind of umami. It enhances everything with its intensity.”
The use of amba highlights two extremes of contemporary Israeli cuisine: On one hand is the expansive and eclectic cuisine of Adoni and Granit, who link different worlds in new ways, such as in Middle Eastern kimchi – while on the other hand, there is the unique cuisine of Eyal Shani, who seeks to “refine the flavor, to distill it to its maximal effect.”
Serving as a marker of heritage and belonging, while at other times as a more universal commodity devoid of social content, amba has never yielded a political myth of origin. It does not provoke the same nationalistic fervor evident in the so-called, notorious hummus wars, perhaps because its genesis has more recent and humble origins. Thus amba has become part of the culinary consensus, disseminating its aroma everywhere without hinting at a narrow political “agenda.”
“Hummus,” writes culture researcher Dafna Hirsch, “is an emotionally charged product which has followed an interesting path: from a Palestinian dish which was hardly known in Jewish society, it has become one of the ultimate markers of Israeliness.”
Easily passed over political hurdles
From where he sits in the United States, Avinadav Levy is optimistic about the future of amba. “I believe we’ll be seeing molecular dishes with amba, such as sabih with amba caviar or amba gelatin or amba sorbet wrapped in eggplant, and maybe even more than that What’s certain is that the more popular amba becomes, the more uses will be made of it.”
Indeed, this phenomenon is already apparent in Israel, in local Arab cuisine at that. One of the flagship dishes served by chef Omar Alwan, at Haifa’s Garden Restaurant, is Zahra mekleyah: fried cauliflower spiced with lemon and served on a bed of tahini, amba jelly and tahini powder. Alwan, one of the leaders of what is called Arab molecular gastronomy, sanctifies scientific precision in the kitchen and defines his cooking as “delicate fusion,” based on Al-Sham cuisine (i.e., originating in the greater Syria area). For his part Alwan believes that amba originated in Egypt, the mango empire, and was transported along the historic rail line linking Alexandria and Aleppo, passing through the Gaza Strip. “It has a biting taste, a bittersweet one. It’s sharp and sweet at the same time,” he observes. “I have no problem introducing it to a chef’s kitchen.”
For Salah Kurdi from Jaffa (formerly of the al-Ashi restaurant), amba also seems to have easily passed over various possible, political hurdles. “I was once asked how Israeliness has affected Palestinian cuisine. I replied that this happened when we started seeing hummus in the ‘fridge at home. Even though it’s a national Palestinian food we were exposed to it only once a week, on Saturdays at the local hummus eatery.”
Adds Kurdi, “Amba rolled into our lives but no one is claiming ownership over it. I can’t say that when I cook Arab Palestinian dishes amba is an authentic component. Amba is my Israeliness.”
Daniel Monterescu is an anthropologist of urban matters, food and wine. Joel Hart is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Oxford University who has studied the Iraqi community diaspora in London.