Step into any Palestinian shawarma shop and the choice of toppings traverse a mouth-watering array of options: thick tahini-and-parsley bakdoonsiyyeh, crushed shatta peppers from Gaza, Lebanese thoum garlic sauce, hummus, cabbage, tabbouleh salad, and much more.
Once you’ve reached the end, you’re given a final choice, one that’s impossible to resist: whether or not to cover the whole mess of juicy sliced lamb and toppings galore with a healthy dollop of … amba?
If you don’t know what amba is, you’re not alone. Shawarma is a type of sliced meat on a spit that is grilled across the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan). The word “shawarma” comes from the Turkish word çevirme, meaning “spinning” – and it is also found in Turkey and Greece as well (where it’s called döner and gyro, respectively, both of which also mean “turn around”). But even though shawarma is eaten across the region, you won’t find amba as a shawarma topping anywhere except for Palestine.
This pinkish-orange-colored condiment is derived from a spicy South Asian mango pickle that’s been crushed into a creamy sauce. To make amba, slices of mango are cured in salt for several days and then seasoned with chili powder, lemon salt, vinegar, mustard, turmeric, and fenugreek seeds, which are key. It’s more sour than sweet mango chutney.
Amba isn’t originally from Palestine, though; this pickle made its way over centuries from southern India, where it originates. Amba comes from the Marathi word “am,” meaning mango. From India, it was taken by Baghdadi Jews and Indians to Iraq, where it has the status of a national food (and is sometimes called torshi anbeh, lit. “mango pickle”). It was from there that Iraqis brought amba to Palestine.
So how did this Indian mango pickle reach the shawarma sandwich shops of Palestine? That is a long story inextricably linked to the history of British colonialism in two different ways: the transformation of Indian Ocean trade networks in the 19th century as they came under British control and the colonization of British Mandate Palestine by Zionist forces in the 20th century. It is now to that history that we turn.
Indian Ocean Trade
To tell the story of amba, we must begin with the story of Indian Ocean trade. This was a long-standing historical network of merchants who traversed this massive body of water for millenia bringing spices, peoples, and ideas to and fro in all directions. On its western side, the Indian Ocean trade connected Eastern Africa and Southern Europe to the Middle East, which is linked to India via the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. On its eastern side, the trade continued from India toward Indonesia and finally China. While the Silk Road – which connects Europe to China overland via the Middle East and Central Asia – is today well-known, its southern over-water counterpart is less well-remembered, despite the central role it played in the global economy for centuries.
By the 1600s, the Indian Ocean trade was a well-developed merchant network and many towns and cities hosted diverse, cosmopolitan populations of merchants who over the centuries settled down across this connected ocean world. Hadrami Arabs from Yemen settled on India’s western coast and built neighborhoods of their own in Singapore and Hong Kong; Gujarati merchants from India traveled to Oman and the Persian Gulf countries as well as Zanzibar and Aden, Persian merchants settled down in China and India, and so on. By having bases in many cities across the Indian Ocean, these communities became transnational trading networks that tied seemingly remote towns to each other across thousands of miles of water.
When European traders entered the Indian Ocean in the 1600s as part of their colonial expansion, they saw these trading networks not as a process to join in but as a territory to conquer. While many trade hubs existed as independent city-states connected by merchants, the Portuguese and Dutch – and later the British – were determined to wrest control of these trade routes for themselves. European merchants were followed by European armies and missionaries, seeking to invade, conquer, convert, and colonize the people they encountered. The consequences were disastrous for this cosmopolitan network of traders. In Kerala, for example, the Portuguese implemented an Inquisition that drove out thousands of Muslims and Jews, just as had happened back in Europe.
The colonization of the Indian Ocean littoral also involved dismantling trading networks that once connected these lands with each other, subjecting them to British regulation intended to bring them under colonial control, and re-orienting them toward Europe. While today it is common to hear, for example, that British colonization involved “opening up” India’s economy to the world, what actually happened was that a previously global network was disentangled by Britain and India’s economy was instead oriented toward making money for Britain. No wonder India went from one of the wealthiest countries to the poorest in the world in just two centuries.
The Baghdadi Jewish connection
Some Indian Ocean trading communities managed to survive this process, however, taking advantage of certains features of British colonial rule to thrive. The Baghdadi Jewish communities were one of these. Beginning in the 17th century, groups of Iraqi Jewish merchants from Baghdad moved to the Persian Gulf port of Basra and from there onward to Mughal India, where they set up settlements in towns like Bombay, Pune, and Calcutta. Over time, other Jewish Arabs from Aleppo and Yemen also often joined these communities.
Taking advantage of the growing speed of travel and communication brought by industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries, these Baghdadi Jews expanded into Yangon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai on one side and London and Manchester on the other. The result was an extensive trading network that enriched these merchants and created a transnational Jewish Arab culture throughout the historic Indian Ocean region.
Baghdadi Jewish cuisine reflects the long impact of the Indian Ocean trade: amba shares space with dishes like biryani, chicken curry, and parathas as Baghdadi Jewish favorites. They were not alone in adopting the foods of the lands they settled; Enseng Ho, for example, mentions in his book The Graves of Tarim that even in the late 20th century Hadramis in Yemen ate Southeast Asian cuisine at home.
By the 20th century, however, the British Empire – which by now controlled much of the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia – was more important for Baghdadi Jews than Baghdad itself, and they increasingly assimilated into English culture. Back in Iraq, however, the influence of Indian Ocean trade was felt strongly in the world of cuisine. Beside the Baghdadi Jews, thousands of Indians also streamed into Iraq, part of a large resident community of merchant, tradesmen, students and scholars that numbered around 5,000 across southern Iraq. During World War I, British forces occupied much of Iraq, and among their troops were large numbers of Indian soldiers who took up residence in the country after the war ended.
Along with spices, textiles, and luxury goods, recipes also made their way back to Iraq from India. One of these was amba, a delicious and tangy mango pickle that is at both spicy, sweet, and sour, and which became a phenomenal hit across Iraq (and in southwestern Iranian cities like Ahwaz as well). By the mid-20th century, amba was everywhere: Iraqi Jewish novelist Somekh Sassoon, for example, describes growing up with it on the streets of Baghdad in his autobiography, Baghdad Yesterday.
Palestine Mandate food culture
After World War I, the British and French engineered the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in a bid to claim the spoils. The French occupied Syria and Lebanon, while Britain took Palestine and Jordan. At the same time, in Europe, some Jews were attracted to a political movement called Zionism whose aim was to create a Jewish state in the land where Palestinians – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish alike – were at the time living.
As Zionist migration to Palestine sped up, European Jewish migrants began creating Jewish-only towns and institutions that made clear their long-term goal of dispossessing the indigenous inhabitants of the land. In response, Palestinians rose up in a series of revolts. The British put these down violently, securing the land for the Zionist project. This lead to the mass expulsion of Palestinians by the state of Israel in 1948, as well as the military occupation of the remaining Palestinians that continues until this day.
The rise of Zionism created outrage across the Arab World, leading to protests and riots that targeted local Arab Jewish communities. While most Arab Jews were uninterested in political Zionism, there were local Zionist chapters that supported the colonization in Palestine and thus became targets.
In this atmosphere, many Jews emigrated to Israel. In countries like Morocco and Yemen, hundreds of thousands of Jews left freely, often under the influence of Zionist propaganda that portrayed Israel as a promised land and downplayed the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. In countries like Egypt and Iraq, meanwhile, governments imposed a series of restrictions, persecutions (like the Farhud), and targeted laws against Jews that led to an exodus. Iraqi Jews brought their food along with them, and among these recipes was amba.
In Israel, however, the European Jews in charge of the nascent state received Arab Jews as primitive foreigners, shipping many of them off to desert camps called ma’abarot where they faced appalling conditions. They banned Arab Jewish culture and music from the Israeli mainstream, and cuisine became one of the few arenas where Arab Jews could keep their culture alive. Almost as soon as Iraqi Jews arrived in Israel, they set up small factories selling authentic “Indian” amba.
Arab Jews brought many foods to Israel that are today consumed there, like the green Yemeni hot sauce skhug, Iraqi kubbeh, and the Maghrebi favorite shakshuka. These foods were brought from their home countries, where they are still eaten by Arabs of all faiths. These are different from foods like shawarma, hummus, and falafel, which were appropriated from Palestinian food culture by Israeli settlers, many of whom mistakenly refer to these foods as Israeli today. These foods are specifically Levantine foods – and the majority of Levantine Jews ended up in Latin America, not Israel. But Israeli shawarma is distinctly Palestinian – even if the amba that goes on top today comes straight from Baghdad via Ramat Gan, the Iraqi Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv.
Palestinians probably encountered amba through work experiences with Israelis. Due to systemic racism in Israeli society inherent to the Zionist project of creating a “Jewish state,” many Palestinians inside Israel are relegated to low-paying service positions on the margins of the Israeli economy. European Jewish (Ashkenazi) discrimination against Middle Eastern Jews (Mizrahim), meanwhile, means that Arab Jews are near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder as well – just above Palestinians. As a result, Palestinians often have interactions with Mizrahim, and certain parts of Mizrahi culture – like food and music – have become familiar.
It is a curious accident of history that amba made its way into Palestinian shawarma shops in the second half of the twentieth century. The movement of amba from India to Jerusalem is closely linked to the story of the Indian Ocean trade as well as British colonialism. British colonial rule closed old pathways of trade and opened up new ones, and among the communities that benefited were the Baghdadi Jews who brought amba from India to Iraq. The British occupation of Palestine, meanwhile, led to the ethnic cleansing of most Palestinians by the Zionist settler-colonial project – but it introduced Iraqi food culture, included newly-adopted staples like amba, to the Palestinians who remained. If there’s one thing that amba teaches us, it’s that food – like anything else – cannot be understood outside of its historical context.