Amla (amalaki in Sanskrit, gooseberry in english) is the key ingredient in Chyawanprash. This herb is the jewel of Ayurveda, considered one of the most powerful rejuvenating ingredients that supports a healthy digestive system and ensures coronary health. It is one of the ingredients in Triphala which is a very important tonic in Ayurveda. Even modern medicine identifies Amla for its high antioxidant levels notably vitamin C which is crucial for immunity. In addition to amla, Chyawanprash contains two classic ayurvedic ingredients - ghee and sugar which are believed to carry the medicinal properties through the cell boundary.
What's concerning to me is that most commercial Chyawanprash recipes are over 50% sugar. The refined kind of cane sugar. Now, I am sure when Chyawanprash was first made, sugar in the modern form did not exist. Amla has a very complex taste, I don't think there would be a word in the english language to explain it. It is quite sour at first bite, then it tastes cool, and then a certain astringent taste in the back of your palate. If you drink a glass of water after biting into amla you get a wonderful cooling sensation all over your mouth. So, a fair amount of sugar gets added to make the amla palatable. There is no reason why you can't make Chyawanprash with the likes of jaggery and honey. Just how sweet you want it to be should be up to you.
Then there are all the herbs that go into Chyawanprash. I don't think there is a record of what the Ashwin brothers used to make the first concoction. But Dabur and Himalaya have their secret recipes and their high profile marketing claims the benefits from 100s of herbs. While I am sure that the herbs are quite beneficial, I can't fathom the complex interactions of the bouquet of herbs. If you are interested in learning about some of the herbs that go into Chyawanprash, I encourage you to watch this video.
As you can see Amla is still the star of Chyawanprash, and the herbs just play a supporting role. Amla is cooked in a soup of herbs, then strained out and cooked. So for my first batch of Chyawanprash, I decided to use spices and herbs commonly found in an Indian kitchen and are known to have anti-inflammatory properties - like cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and fennel. I just don't know enough about the other herbs - where they are grown, how they are sourced, how to prepare them and what effect they have on our system. Until I enlighten myself, here is my 'vanilla' chyawanprash recipe.
A note about buying fresh Amla - you should be able to find these in well stocked Indian grocery stores in major North American cities in the winter months. Amla season in India starts in winter and extends into spring (March/April). Incidentally, my maternal grandmothers house in India housed a gooseberry tree. How visionary of my ancestors to invest in the family's future health and vitality. Unfortunately, in the name of urbanization, that tree (among others) in that flourishing backyard was cut down, to make way for a sprawling community. Even the least blemished amla fruit from the grocery store today, doesn't match up to the fresh taste of the fruit from my grandmothers tree. Lament!
20-25 fresh amla
1/2 cup ghee
1 cup jaggery
3 tablespoons non-pasteurized honey (or to taste)
1/2 black pepper corns
2 inch stick of cinnamon
1 tsp roasted fennel seeds
1. Wash and clean the amla and steam it in a pressure cooker. Allow it to come to full steam and cook under pressure for 4-5 minutes. You can use another device to steam the amla, but note that cooking time will be longer.
2. Let the amla cool to room temperature. The amla should fall apart on touching. Take out the seed from the amla and place the pulp into a blender. Blend it till all the fibers are incorporated. I have seen some recipes that call for running the pulp through a fine mesh to discard the stem and flesh. But that seems unnecessary, running everything through a high speed blender gave a very smooth texture.
3. Now take a heavy bottomed pan, heat 1/2 cup of ghee. Add the amla puree to the ghee. On low heat, fry the amla for 6-7 minutes stirring often until the water evaporates and the mixture comes together and stops sticking to the pan/spoon.
4. Grind the pepper corns, cinnamon, fennel seeds and cloves into a fine powder. Add this to the amla.Turn off the heat and add the grated jaggery to the pan. Use the heat of the pan to melt and combine the jaggery. Let this mixture cool down.
5. Taste for sweetness and flavor. At this point the chyawanprash is more sour than sweet. You can add honey to your taste when the mixture is completely cooled. I prefer to use non pasteurized honey which preserves the natural enzymes, so it should not be heated after this. I added about 3 table spoons of honey and got to my desired sweetness.
Transfer to a jar and enjoy a spoonful each day!
Verdict - The chyawanprash is more brown in color due to the use of jaggery and also due to the absence of all the herbs that give the deep dark color to commercial counterparts. But, it has all the complex amla flavor. My two year old didn't fall in love with the taste, but toddlers don't fall in love at first bite. I will be trying every trick in the parenting book to get him to eat a half a teaspoon a day.
Anyone reading this, willing to point me towards resources to learn more about the herbs that can be cooked into chyawanprash, feel free to share your knowledge and get in touch using the comments below!