Amba: A Tale of Four Cities
The cultural production of mango pickle. Words by Joel Hart; Illustrations by Jonah Schulz
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The first time I had a sabich from Balady in Temple Fortune, it had just started raining and I had flung myself into the nearest interesting looking café just to escape from what looked like an oncoming storm. I was attracted by the outside of the shop, a pale blue of a morning sky, with the same word repeated three times in three different scripts ─ English, Hebrew and Arabic ─ a word that roughly translates as native, or local. What country was this sandwich shop native to, I wondered? How should I categorise it? Was it Jewish/Israeli/Middle Eastern/Levantine/Mediterranean? Or did categories flatten or hide what this place was, and what it was selling?
In an interview in The Funambulist with his brother Karim, the Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan is scathing of the categories many restaurants have used to name their food. “Sadly we self-orientalize under labels such as Middle-Eastern, Levantine or Mediterranean cuisine, which don’t mean anything, to me” Kattan says. “If you’re having a meal in Northern Algeria it has nothing to do with the meal that you could have in South Turkey. And if you are having a meal in occupied Jaffa, most probably the only thing in common with Marseille is that some of the fish are the same, but it stops there.” This quote reminded me of a seminar I attended by an Israeli academic a few years ago who called these labels a ‘kind of euphemism’ but when used by Israeli chefs. In both cases, the specific is being substituted for the general, but for two different reasons.
How can you talk about the general without losing the specific: this is the problem of cuisines. Ingredients and their paths show a way, as Joel Hart shows in today’s newsletter. At Balady, we got talking about amba, that runny mango pickle whose sourness can activate salivary glands and flick on synapses in your brain that you didn’t know about. I’m a ‘put everything on’ kind of sandwich guy, ‘chilli sauce, garlic sauce, everything’ but I had to be careful with the amba, which was surgically applied. “Try it first” one of the brothers told me “and if you like it, I’ll give you more”. I did like it. We got talking and it turned out that the brothers were from Israel but also had Moroccan heritage, that they cooked their grandmother’s fish recipes on Fridays, that the sign above the door was a mark of respect and also of welcome, and that amba belongs to everyone who has produced it.
Amba: A Tale of Four Cities, by Joel Hart
The vast amount of mango cultivars in India is surpassed only by the plethora of savoury and sweet ways in which they are processed and eaten. You might be most familiar with the sticky-sweet chatni that is eaten with poppadoms at the beginning of a meal in any classic high-street curry house, or the refreshing mango lassi that cools the mouth in between mouthfuls of curries packed full of chillies. But there is only one form that provokes as much obsession as the mango itself.
Amba is a mango pickle sauce made from the pickling of brined mango with vinegar, mustard and usually fenugreek. Known outside of India as amba, the Marathi word for mango, it is loved for its acidity and umami – and hated for the profound stink it can produce in a person’s sweat. It is manufactured in India, primarily under two Bombay-based brands, ‘Ship’ and ‘Camel’. Ship’s label reads ‘Original Amba, established 1883’, and is decorated with a crest of arms and a ship. It is less pungent and acidic than Camel, which is made with the addition of fenugreek, making it a powerful product, permeating through every nook and cranny of the palate.
Indicating the scale of their mango-sourcing operation, Camel also sells – under ‘Ashoka’, a brand familiar to Brits – Alphonso and Kesar mango pulps; mango and lime pickle; Gor-Keri pickle (shredded mango relish); Gujarati Methia mango pickle; a Punjabi mango pickle in olive oil; and hot, sweet ginger mango chutney. Amba is arguably an iteration of this repertoire, yet its identity was consolidated not in India, but Iraq.
In the Baghdad of the mid-twentieth century, the bustling Shorja market was brimming with dates, tomatoes, and okra, as well as a panoply of turshi (pickles), blessed by Iraq’s ideal eco-geographical conditions for the cultivation of vegetables and fruits. One curious – and perhaps incongruous – product, however, was amba. Alongside an already globally renowned turmeric-heavy dust known as ‘curry powder’ were vats and bottles of the sauce, identifiable by the crest of arms belonging to its branding.
According to legend, it was the Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon family who began the process of importing mangoes to Iraq from India. On discovering the golden, luscious flesh of the famous Alphonso mango, they felt their compatriots in Baghdad must experience the same pleasure. On realising mango’s limited shelf-life would not allow the fresh fruit to be exported, they decided to pickle them according to their Baghdadi palate.
By the late nineteenth century – when Ship was established – we can be sure that the amba we know today was being consumed at large by the Iraqi public. Ship’s amba soon became the go-to condiment for masgouf, kubbat mousel, and various grilled meat cuts, cutting across religious and ethnic boundaries. The Iraqi-Jewish artist and food writer Linda Dangoor emphasises how, during her childhood in 1950s Baghdad, it also transgressed class boundaries; she remarks that ‘it [was] like bread’, equally at home on the dining tables of upper-middle-class homes as it was in the seemingly unbranded barrels of street vendors.
There was one such vendor called Abu Karem, who worked outside the Jewish Frank Iny School, which had some Muslim attendees. If you were twelve or older, it is likely that you would have snuck out at break to have the intensely sour snack of a ladle of amba spread generously between two halves of a samoun. This was usually prohibited by parents and involved a crossing of class boundaries. For those who indulged and now no longer live in Iraq, amba is the taste of memories of rebellion on Baghdad’s al-Rasheed Street, and a sensory connection to home.
Amba’s global trails since then have become sinuous, such that, through a deep dive into the pickle, the forms of obfuscation and connection that are mediated by consumption and globalisation appear complex. When Camel arrived in Iraq, decades after it was first produced, the brand labelled their mango pickles as being ‘Arabic-style’ and extended amba’s circulation to the Arabian Peninsula, sending it to consumers in Iraq, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Oman. The expanding geographical spread of Camel, paired with the range of ‘Arabised’ Indian products that became available, indicates amba’s significant integration to Middle Eastern cuisines beyond Iraq. As Camel joined Ship in the Iraqi market, amba continued to assume a central place in Iraqi cuisine while still being associated with its Indian origins.
Amba’s journey out of Iraq began in 1951, with the dramatic airlift of 123,000 Iraqi Jews from Baghdad to Lod Airport (Israel’s major international airport, now known as Ben Gurion). This was an unprecedented moment of rupture for the Iraqi Jewish community, whose presence in the country could be traced back to the time of the Babylonian exile in 598 BCE. While around 6,000 Baghdadi Jews stayed (subsequently relocating to London over the following decades), Iraqi culture would face a difficult battle for survival in the new State of Israel. In her book Impossible Exodus, historian Orit Bashkin describes the processes of state-led discrimination that Iraqi Jews, along with other Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), faced in the first few decades of their lives in Israel. Ship’s amba could no longer be purchased: amba would have to be revived in a new context.
For amba to get to the point of being a widespread, divisive ingredient – adored and abhorred by Israelis of all ethnicities – it had to transcend a darker history of food-based racialisation. In the film Forget Baghdad, the Iraqi-Jewish cultural theorist Ella Shohat elaborates on this reality. She recalls being referred to by her Ashkenazi classmates as ‘iraqit mesreecha’ (stinky Iraqi) after she came to school with beid’im amba (egg with amba), an experience that led her to identify her Iraqi culture as un-Israeli. The geographical dispersal, and the concentration, of Mizrahim in peripheral towns and neighbourhoods has had a major effect on the ethno-class structure of Israeli society to this day.
In the working-class Hatikvah neighbourhood of South Tel Aviv, Iraqi Jews, along with Yemenite Jews and other Mizrahim, have undergone the challenging process of ‘becoming Israeli’. More recently, the neighbourhood has become home to migrant workers from Thailand, China and India, as well as asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. A large covered market runs through the centre of the neighbourhood – here, it is not uncommon to see Palestinian women from the ‘Southern Triangle’ selling baladi (homegrown) vegetables, but the market is mostly parcellated into sections of vegetable grocers, spice and deli products, butchers, and small restaurants. Dispersed throughout are street-food stands selling borekas (Turkish borek), Yemeni breads with zhoug, and an array of Iraqi delights. Reconstituted from the memories of consuming Ship at Hatikvah, amba production here is diverse and plentiful. Variations emerge from the use of, or amount of, particular spices – particularly fenugreek (which arguably emerged due to urban co-habitation with Yemenite Jews) or lemon salt; the amount of water used to achieve a thicker or thinner sauce; and, most importantly, the use of mango.
After generations of producing homemade amba, some families have turned this practice into small businesses and begun selling branded amba. One of them, produced by the brand Shemesh, is labelled ‘Amba Hoodit’ (Indian Amba), and comes complete with garish branding, Hebrew letters, and a yellowy-orange label not dissimilar to the colour of the sauce the bottle contains. Meanwhile, at Ma’adaney Ofer in Hatikvah, large blue plastic barrels containing pre-brined and spiced mango are shipped in by Camel – the mango is then washed so it can be re-fermented with the desired mixture of spices. In this premium version, large chunks of mango remain, and fenugreek, salt, hot paprika, sweet paprika, and turmeric are added. A less premium version using Israeli-grown mangos is combined with acidity regulator, vegetable oil, and a range of preservatives and stabilisers, and sold in plastic tubs. (Indian mango has more fibre and therefore a softer flesh, but Israeli mango is picked while still green and needs to spend up to six months in brine before it is ready to turn into amba.) Ma’adaney Ofer even sells amba rotev (amba sauce), a version of amba without any mango at all. Advertised as ‘a spicy sauce with the taste of amba’, its production indicates how amba has transformed, in an Israeli context, into a loose sauce used to add umami depth.
For the vendors at Ma’adaney Ofer, amba is still very much an Iraqi product. One vendor describes his joy at eating amba ‘the Iraqi way’. This includes lahmaniya ‘im amba (a bread roll with amba) – a clear continuation of samoon wa amba – as well as in a salad with tomato. Amba hoodit and amba rotev may be the most significant new developments in how amba is produced in Israel today – although a similar process has happened in Iraq where shrees, a mango-less powder, is turned into a liquid by adding water.
Ma’adaney Ofer is now a popular brand nationwide, and also extends beyond into the occupied Palestinian territories. The same vendor recalls, ‘Coincidentally, a few months ago a man came and told me, “listen, I want twenty buckets of amba. Bring it to the territories for me.”’ Prior to the Oslo Accords, Palestinian travel to Israel for work was commonplace; this phenomenon led to the discovery and subsequent adoption of amba into Palestinian street food, where it accompanies falafel and shawarma.
At a sabih stall called HaSabih shel Tzion Ha Gevah shel Hatikvah (Tzion’s Sabih, the Pride of Hatikvah), one can choose between amba or a homemade spicy version which Tzion calls amba harif; Iraqi Jews have maintained their cultural connection to the memory of Baghdad’s streets by embracing homemade amba. At Melech HaKubbot (which literally translates to ‘the king of kubbeh’), a turmeric-stained steamed kubbeh filled with fragrant lamb is doused in amba which has been made in-house. Here, the vendor inquired about whether we have such a dish in the UK. I told him that we can get kubbeh, but that it wouldn’t be served in the same way. Acknowledging my point with a nod, he then replied ‘In the Muslim areas.’
The arrival of amba to London can be traced back to the arrival of Iraqi exiles in London and Manchester. While London is now home to a full spectrum of the ‘Iraqi mosaic’, Mandaean, Kurdish, Christian, Shia, and Sunni Iraqis came two to three decades after the arrival of Iraqi Jews, also fleeing religious or political discrimination.
Ship is the most popular brand of amba among London’s Iraqi-Jewish immigrants, who mostly arrived in the late 1960s and early 1970s after increasing state-led discrimination under the Ba’ath party of Saddam Hussein. The popularity of each brand might even be defined through class origins, with some of London’s upper-middle-class Iraqis longing for Ship’s speciality version of whole green mangos in brine, which could be found in specific vendors in Shorja Market. Likewise, a preference for Ship indicates how late-nineteenth-century Basra-Bombay trade routes continue to define the postcolonial Iraqi citizen, whether in Iraq or the diaspora.
In recent years, however, new references have emerged. At ‘Shuk – Tel Aviv Market Food’ in Borough Market, bronze, gridded shelves hang adjacent to the stand’s sign. Behind the grids are rows of sauces in jars. The first two, with English typography and a tidy emerald label, are harissa and za’atar tahini, produced by the brand Med Cuisine; next to them is the instantly recognisable ‘Indian amba’ produced by Shemesh.
Shuk is the Hebrew word for market, and this self-stylisation – around the Tel Aviv market, rather than Israel – suggests such products have emerged in the dynamism of a bustling, cosmopolitan urban environment. Yet in London, forms of diasporic continuity are often missed when food is presented as Israeli. Indeed, on the Shemesh bottle at Shuk, Amba is not marketed as Israeli, but rather as ‘hoodit’ (Indian); one would need to be able to read Hebrew, however, to know this. Indeed, amba signifies an Israeliness that does not seek to claim ownership of contested foods. In the London context, it seems a trick has been missed.
Conversely, just metres away at Kubba, the first Iraqi food stall in London, amba’s origins are more clearly represented. Philip Juma, whose father is an Iraqi Christian, presents amba as one of the main dipping sauces for accompanying kubba – deep-fried ground bulgur wheat or rice stuffed with spiced meat. He uses the Camel brand of amba, which he purees and combines with ‘secret ingredients’. At Kubba it is recommended to eat amba with kubbat haleb, a gleaming golden and artfully constructed oval, rice-based kubba, perfectly crisp, filled with lamb, and flavoured subtly with baharat (spice mix).
Iraqi cuisine is not one but many, regionally and ethnically defined; in building his version, Philip brought together immediate heritage – the family baharat; the kubba hands of his grandmother – with the influences of all of Iraq. For Philip, ‘It will always have a place in what we do [at Kubba]. The response from people has been overwhelming. So many people make a point to come back to the stall, smiling, and say, “What on earth was in that yellow sauce?!” They want us to bottle it and sell it. It just works!’
One of the newer brands to arrive in the UK market is ‘Roz’. In Israel this is marketed as ‘genuine Indian amba’, and the design of the logo carries this message as it enters a global market. Now repackaged as gourmet, the entry of some of these products to the London market complicates links between heritage and production; its consumption in London indexes the diasporic identity of amba, but also the ways in which the multi-layered origins of foods become clouded in new metropolitan contexts.
Amba is a product that signifies diaspora. With amba hoodit preferred to an amba that may be understood as tozeret ha’aretz (a product of the land), amba’s destiny might continue to be led from elsewhere, and not amenable to strong nationalist claims. Indeed, it is through the production, circulation and consumption of amba that historic forms of commonality can be recognised.
Its versatility, however, should not be over-indulged. As the production of foods moves away from the source, our comprehension of how they are made – and where they originate from – becomes watered down, which allows nationalist geographies to emerge without much competition. Appearing on a menu alongside ‘Israeli couscous’ or as part of a ‘Tel Aviv-style’ restaurant menu, amba may be misunderstood in the London context. It was only on doing further research, I discovered that, written in bold letters on the Ship bottle, below an Arabic transliteration of ‘ship’, are the English words: ‘beware of imitations’.
Joel Hart is a social anthropologist and freelance writer focusing on urbanism and food cultures in London and the Middle East. He is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen Mary University of London. You can find him on Instagram @joelhart or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonah Schulz is a part-time illustrator and designer and full-time American expat living in London. He is mainly interested in food, films, and basketball. You can find his work @brause513 on Instagram.
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits.