What Do You Do With an Unripe Mango? Pickle It

The only problem with amba — the habit-forming, incandescently bright mango pickle found on the bar of every falafel shop — is how long it takes to make. Days, if you’re doing it the old-fashioned way: salting pieces of mango and letting the jars sit in the sun, until the fruit has softened, released all its juices and lightened in color. This salt-preserved fruit, after about five days, is mixed with a powerful sludge of spices that include turmeric and crushed fenugreek and cumin seeds, staining the pickle with color and deepening its flavor — a hot, sour, salty tang that amplifies as the pickle continues to ferment for a few more days. It’s a process, but the result is both intense and delicious, the kind of thing you taste once and want to keep tucked away in the fridge at all times.

Adeena Sussman, an American cookbook author who has been living in Tel Aviv for the last few years, doesn’t have to make her own amba from scratch, and she rarely does. Ever since Iraqi Jews carried the pickling technique back to Baghdad from southern India, beginning around the 1940s, the Middle East has been rich with small factories and artisanal pickle makers. “Different people have different ideas about amba,” Sussman says. “Some are more viscous, more yellow, or more deep orange, while others are thicker or more portable.” Though the most familiar version is smooth and pourable, and ideal for squirting directly from a squeeze bottle into a sandwich at a falafel joint, there are chunky versions served with a spoon. The pickle in all its forms is a staple in Israeli and Palestinian kitchens, and cooks where Sussman lives tend to buy the pickle from small businesses that specialize in it, or rehydrate a premixed powder in their kitchens at home.

But in her new cookbook, “Sababa,” Sussman wrote a recipe for amba anyway, deviating from the standard process with both a shortcut — the recipe takes 40 minutes from start to finish — and an unexpected ingredient that helps to mimic the flavors of a much longer fermentation.

Two years ago, when Sussman started writing her cookbook, it wasn’t easy to find amba in the United States, and she wanted readers to have a way in. It was, however, easy to find a rock-hard unripe green mango. “So I started there,” says Sussman, who used out-of-season Tommy Atkins mangoes, which are big and flatly sweet. “Finding a ripe mango can be hard, and I love the idea of finding an unripe mango and using it for something immediately.”

Sussman peels the fruit, grates it on a box grater and cooks it down with salt and spices until the juice reduces and the mixture thickens. At first, Sussman wasn’t happy with the quick version. “I loved the way my amba was coming out from a textural standpoint, but it was missing a little something,” she says. She turned to fish sauce, which added the salty funk of an older pickle that had sweated in the sun for a few days. Whizzed together in the blender with some fish sauce, the pickle takes on all the characteristics of amba. It’s ready to use right away, and keeps in the fridge for about a month. Sussman mixes it with mayonnaise to make an amba egg salad, and sautés it with coconut milk to start a curry. Mixed with tahini, it makes a rich salad dressing, or just put the jar on the table and serve it as a dollop with a plain piece of grilled fish. If you were in any way suspicious of using fish sauce, this combination makes perfect sense of it, showing off the quick pickle’s brightness and depth. “It’s not traditional at all,” Sussman says. “But it gets you really, really close.”

Recipe: Quick Pickled Amba

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