Spice Hunting: Amchoor
Writing this column has been as much an educational experience for me as I hope it's been for you Serious Eaters.* If asked a few weeks ago what real culinary value powdered, dried, unripe mangoes have, I'd have said little. I'd put it up there with turmeric as a minute flavor element easily excluded from all but the most finicky and detailed of recipes (let it be noted I have no intentions on starting a fight about turmeric). But oh how wrong I would have been. I'll say it upfront: I'm incredibly excited about this stuff. I've had trouble cooking something up that doesn't benefit from a sprinkle.
*Thanks in no small part to your incredibly insightful comments! I always learn something new from them.
I was hesitant to purchase it on my last Indian grocery trip. It was only available powdered, which I try to avoid—with so much new recipe testing, it sometimes takes me quite a while before I return to an old spice. It smelled mild, more a subtle potpourri to make a spice store smell like a spice store than a flavor powerhouse. But a need to prove myself wrong and a quest for inspiration forced me to buy it and do some research.
What Does It Taste Like?
Amchoor is the end process of slowly drying unripe mangoes in the sun and then grinding them to a fine powder. It smells like a dusty crate of tropical fruit, but in a good way. The flavor is much more exciting: tart but not overly so, with a surprisingly complex sweetness that just begs for something savory to complement. It rounds the tongue as well as full-fleshed mangoes do.
How Do You Use It?
Amchoor is mainly used in Indian cooking, and it's in these applications where it seems most at home. It's a must for many okra curries and legume dishes, a common ingredient in chaat masalas, and a key flavor in chutneys, pickles, marinades, and complex, layered curries. But its uses don't stop there. Try toasting nuts in a small amount of oil and some amchoor. Or add it to your next fruit salad. Its fruity flavor makes it a shoe-in for pork (definitely removed from its Indian roots), and it's also a good rub for baked chicken or fish. Though I wouldn't recommend grilling or broiling with it—the flavor is too delicate for such high heat.
As useful and wonderful as lemons and limes are to livening up long-cooked dishes, they can get a little old. Amchoor has the tartness of citrus and all the flavor of its zest. Like citrus juice, it's best added at the end of cooking to preserve its flavor, but should be stirred well into whatever its coating. Similarly, it can also cut the cloying sweetness of fruit-based sauces, syrups, and compotes. It makes an interesting addition or alternative to the medieval triad of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.
It has one other advantage over lemons and limes: It adds no liquid. If you want to add tartness to some roasted vegetables or fried items while preserving their delicate crispiness for more than a few minutes, amchoor may be your answer.
Standard ground spice protocols apply to keep it fresh. It should be tightly sealed and kept away from light and heat, preferably in the back of a cabinet, and used within eight months. But don't let it languish in the back of the cabinet! Amchoor's worth experimenting with at very low risk. It doesn't clash much with other flavors, and in the presence of more assertive spices it yields to the background gracefully. Take this spin on rasam, a thin Indian tomato soup. It's heavily spiced, and certainly doesn't scream dried mangoes, but you'd miss it if it weren't there. Amchoor is a perfect supporting spice that doesn't mind stepping up to the main plate every now and then.
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.