I don’t know how Google would define a curry, but to me, it means a lot more than just food. To me, it signifies love, warmth and comfort. So, here’s to my love for my favourite curry, aam ka ambal.
It was a Sunday evening when I went to the kitchen and found some kachi kairis (raw mangoes) lying on the shelf only to realize that my mother was making aam ka ambal. Ambal is a very popular traditional recipe from Jammu & Kashmir's Dogra cuisine. It is essentially a sweet and tangy pumpkin dish prepared with a base of jaggery and tamarind.
When I was a child and my mother made aam ka ambal, there were never any leftovers, because I would relish every last bit of it. This time, while assisting my mother, I realises just how close it is to my heart. As the mangoes started to cook, and the sweet-sour smells filled the kitchen, I was instantly transported to my childhood when aam ka ambal used to announce the arrival of the mango season at home.
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Summer has now given way to rains, and this dish continues to be on our monsoon menu without question! Raw mangoes aren’t usually plucked and we would wait for the seasonal windstorms in May to shake the trees up. On the day following a storm, the vegetable vendor would have those dropped kachi kairis on sale and I would go running with my nani to buy those. Later, my mother would make aam ka ambal and my sister and I would lick the bowl clean while fighting for the guthli (seed), the best part of the ambal. Years have passed since then, and we still fight over the guthli and the winner relishes the sweet victory.
Aam ka ambal is a lesser-known version of the very popular Dogri ambal. A classic ambal is a sweet and sour pumpkin curry that holds a special place in Dogri culture. All festivities in Jammu call for ambal on the menu, especially during the wedding season. There is a ritual known as Saant which is performed on the day of the wedding. It is followed by a lunch, which has a fixed menu of ambal, channa dal and the fennel seed-flavoured sweet rice. “This combination keeps the stomach light on the wedding day,” says Jammu-based chef Ajay Kumar Siotra. He enjoys ambal with khamira, a fried fermented bread. He shares, “My nani is the ambal queen. Whenever we visit her, this dish is the centre of attention.”
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The pulpy raw mangoes and jaggery give the perfect sweet and tangy notes to the curry, which is tempered with mustard, fenugreek, fennel seeds, and other spices resulting in a flavour explosion like no other. When made without mangoes, tamarind or anardana (wild pomegranate seeds) is used to hit the sour spots.
Using fruit in savoury cooking can raise a few eyebrows, but mango in a curry is nothing like pineapple on a pizza. A curry with mangoes is actually not as surprising as it sounds. Ambe upkari in Mangalore, keri nu shaak in Gujarat, and aam ka ambal in Jammu & Kashmir are just different names with some variations of the same dish. When life gives you mangoes, there is so much more than just desserts to make with the king of fruits. Here’s the recipe of my very dear aam ka ambal.
Aam ka ambal
6 peeled kachi kairis
100 gms jaggery
1 tbsp mustard oil
Salt to taste
½ tsp Kashmiri red chilli powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
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Heat oil in a pan, and add in fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds and mustard seeds.
Once the mustard seeds start to splutter, add salt and red chilli powder. Chop some of the pulp off the mango and leave the rest on the seed and throw it all in the spice mix. Sauté for a couple of minutes.
Add jaggery, turmeric powder, fennel seeds and a cup of water. Let it come to a boil.
Simmer for 10 minutes stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened
Enjoy it warm, preferably Dogri-style with saunf-flavoured sweet rice.