Trader Joe’s Sells a Version of My Favorite International Condiment

updated Apr 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Naomi Tomky)

Walking through Hatikvah market in Tel Aviv, you can’t miss the amba shop: rows and rows of buckets filled with thick golden liquid. So when a package of nearly the same color practically jumped out at me from the refrigerator at my local Trader Joe’s, it took me by surprise. Sure enough, it was a squeeze pouch of the Indian-Iraqi-Israeli fermented mango sauce. Savory, pungent, tangy, the sauce is made from fermented ripe and green mangos simmered with garlic, salt, turmeric, paprika, and a few other spices.

Previously, finding amba in the U.S., while not impossible, certainly wasn’t easy; for years, when Americans returned from trips to Israel craving sabich, the fried eggplant sandwich in which amba is an essential ingredient, they were either out of luck or had to ferment their own. But since the end of February (how did I miss it for an entire month?!) it’s been on Trader Joe’s shelves around the country.

The sauce originated in India (amba means mango in the Marathi language), but the Israeli version arrived with waves of Iraqi Jews who immigrated in the 1950s, and became a popular condiment for almost everything, but particularly falafel. It’s recently made some inroads in the U.S., where the restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia serves it with duck hearts and celery, and Zuuk in Florida offers it as part of a dressing for grilled Broccolini. The sauce is strong, so it works well with big-flavored meats, hearty vegetables, and anything from the grill.

(Image credit: Naomi Tomky)

Does the Trader Joe’s Version Live Up to the Hype?

So, after snatching the packet of amba (14 ounces for $3.29) from the shelves, I brought it home, excited to add a little pizzazz to my dinner — grilled lamb and carrots. The spouted pouch it comes in deprived me of the pleasure of releasing amba’s signature scent into the air when I unscrewed the cap, but it made it easy to pour into a puddle on my plate.

I sliced off a bit of lamb and dipped it tentatively into the amba, prepped for the wallop of taste the sauce usually carries. Then I waited. And waited. Perhaps my lamb was overpowering the flavor of the sauce. I dabbed my fork in and tried the sauce straight. It whispered hints of what I was expecting, all the elements were there, just in a muted fashion.

For those uninitiated into amba fandom, this sauce makes an excellent entry-level sample. It’s a lovely, mild learning experience. For those who know the sauce from its Middle Eastern versions, it’s likely to be a disappointment, and all I can say is that the heat builds, and if you use enough, it is close enough to tide you over until you can find the real thing.