Amba-Inspired Hot Sauce

 
I first had amba on falafel and schwarma when I visited Israel at the age of 16. Oh what an age! My inexperienced taste buds were confused when I tasted this sauce, as I assumed that “mango sauce” would be very sweet.

 

In fact, amba has just the slightest hint of sweet and hot, and is mostly defined by its tartness and distinctive curry flavor. I’m sure I was clueless too about the identity of all or most of the spices in it. These typically include fenugreek, cumin, coriander, turmeric, ground mustard, and more, and frankly I’m not sure I had tasted any of those at that stage in my life.

 

But did I like it? I loved it then and now.

The idea to make amba as a kind of fermented hot sauce (with added hot peppers) came to mind before I really understood what the process was for making regular amba. Not too surprisingly, I learned that the baby (or “green”) mangoes are fermented, hence the sourness. This is normally done in straight salt, in a closed vessel in the sun, for several days. I also found that its smooth, silky texture is achieved through the use of olive oil (which the spices are simmered in). I do plan to post a recipe for this traditional amba at some point, but plenty abound on the internet.

 

For a hot sauce, I knew that oil could not be used in my recipe. I like saving sauces and using them on just the right meal months after bottling. Oil-based sauces just don’t have a good shelf life without preservatives.*

 

I also couldn’t find baby mangoes (which have more of a white flesh) but achieved the flavor profile I was looking for with unripe (hard) mangoes which are usually easy to find in grocery stores and produce markets.

Besides these modifications, I would need a long ferment – much more than just a few days – resulting in a low pH which would give a long shelf life.

 

I fermented this quart batch for two months in a spiced salt brine. Once blended for bottling, I divided it in two. One would be kept raw and the other cooked and pasteurized to compare flavor and texture. Some sauce-makers are adamant about heat processing to create a shelf stable product and lock in flavor, while others like the idea of the natural flavors of a raw sauce filled with probiotic activity. They’re both very good with some comparison notes and other suggestions provided at the end.

 

 
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*Note: Mixing oil into ferments at their outset is a risk for botulism and something I avoid (despite some practices to the contrary). Though adding it afterwards is not considered a risk for botulism (due to a ferment’s low pH coupled with salinity and refrigeration), added oil is still associated with a greatly reduced shelf life – in regular amba about two weeks – as bacteria quickly break down the fatty acids.

 

You will need
Half gallon jar; cutting board and knife; mango pitter (recommended); measuring cups & spoons; small saucepan; fermentation weight (recommended); latex gloves (recommended for handling & deseeding the peppers); blender or preferred device for blending; spice blender for any whole spices you may have (it can be difficult to find ground fenugreek)

Ingredients
    • 4 unripe mangoes, peeled and deseeded
    • 2 cups filtered water
    • 1 TBS non-iodized salt
    • 2 or more orange Habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers to taste (suggest cutting and removing seeds for a smooth sauce); I used three and the sauce had some heat but nothing crazy – a superhot fan can definitely increase the amount or pepper type
    • 4 TBS lemon juice (2 TBS in the ferment; 2 TBS after)
    • 1 small head garlic, peeled
    • 1 TBS ground fenugreek (this product requires grinding)
    • 1 TBS cumin
    • 2 tsp ground mustard
    • 1 tsp ground coriander
    • 1 tsp ground black pepper
    • 1/2 tsp turmeric
    • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
    • 1/4 tsp cardamom
Directions
1.) In a saucepan, combine the water and salt. Heat on medium-high until the salt is dissolved.

 

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2.) Add the spices to the saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for ten minutes. After that, allow to come to room temperature.
3.) While the brine cools, remove the pits and skins from the mango (pitter recommended). Try to keep the mango in large pieces if possible. (For a video showing how to easily pit and peel a mango, click here.

 

4.) Wash the habaneros and remove the seeds and stems

 

5.) Place the peeled garlic and habaneros into the fermenting vessel, followed by the large mango pieces to help keep the smaller pieces submerged.

 

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6.) Add 2 TBS lemon juice to the jar

 

7.) Stir up the cooled brine so the spices are evenly distributed, then slowly pour into jar, covering all the produce. The brine should come to about 1″ short of the shoulder. There may be some excess brine.

 

8.) At this time it is recommended to add a fermentation weight which will help keep everything submerged throughout the ferment. The brine line should now be at the shoulder of the jar. If not, or if you’d like it just a touch higher, add brine as needed (remember the water level will rise some on its own as the mango releases its moisture).
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Note: Even if everything appears firmly in place now, loosening will likely occur in the fermentation process. With the right precautions as described above, rising pieces should still be trapped under the larger mango pieces and any weights. If a piece is exposed to air, it should be removed or re-submerged if possible. Otherwise, opening the jar is strongly discouraged.
 
9.) Ferment for at least two months (additional details below)
 
10.) Reserve the brine and blend all solids thoroughly (5+ minutes) in a high-powered blender, pulsing frequently. Add brine back in to achieve desired consistency (I used about 1.5 cups total but it is recommended to use increments of 1/4 cup and then tablespoons when finishing).
 
Fermentation length: Given the enhanced shelf life and souring effect on flavor of a long ferment, this is recommended, minimally for two months. Although the ferment may still be somewhat active, it can safely remain in a fridge if bottled. (Remember to open the lid and use it every now and then too!) If you have a pH tester, a pH below 4.6 indicates an acidified (safe) food. Below 3.2 and there will be no more chance for refermentation even if you opt not to cook and/or pasteurize the sauce.

Flavor profiles
Raw Sauce: This one happened to be my favorite of the two, but I usually am more drawn to raw sauces. The flavors seemed just a little bolder, and the heat of the habs (though still relatively mild) came through a bit more. There was one advantage of the cooked sauce, though: the texture.

Cooked Sauce:
The sauce was brought to a low boil and then reduced to simmer for ten minutes covered. I added another 2 TBS of the reserved brine (basically all I had left) beforehand to account for moisture lost in cooking and to prevent thickening. Cooking changes not just texture, but also flavor. Given all the garlic in the ferment, some might prefer it cooked as it mellows this flavor somewhat. Finally, after the cook I blended it again. Due to this processing, the overall texture of the cooked sauce seemed a little better (smoother, more cohesive) than the raw.

 

 
Neither version had the silkiness of the traditional amba with oil, which I do enjoy. If you’d like to experiment, carrots in a hot sauce ferment can have a smoothing effect and doesn’t impact flavor much. I also considered adding honey (~2 tsp) to the cooked sauce since there would be no chance of reactivating the ferment with the sugars, as a way to mimic the oil. I may also try adding honey and citric acid (which helps maintain a low pH) to the raw sauce. I’ll post any updates.

 

Overall these two variants were much more similar than they were different. Depending on your needs and preferences, either one should be a welcome addition to so many of your foods, especially middle eastern dishes!

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