Food Katha: The versatility of Amla or Indian Gooseberry

In Ayurveda, Amla is referred to as a must for every day consumption, no matter what the season ! And it can be used as a drink, a pickle or a dessert, writes Mrinal Pande

Food Katha: The versatility of Amla or Indian Gooseberry

Mrinal Pande

One of the richest natural sources of vitamin C is an ancient Indian berry. It is mentioned in Jaimineeya Upanishad (जैिमनीय उपिनषद्)as an ingredient for making a pickle of it in oil or preserved whole in honey as a sort of Murabba or for making a refreshing drink called Panaka पणक.

In Ayurveda, Amla is referred to as a must for every day consumption, no matter what the season. The greatly prized Triphala Churn, prescribed for various ailments comprises three ingredients of which Amla is one. It is also a staple part of Chyavanprash, now being marketed by various companies as a great tonic and restorative along with bottles of Amla juice.

Much before the West discovered the great restorative properties of the Amla berry, Amla trees were cultivated all over India. It is a flowering tree that produces small, green and round berries and grows even in arid areas like Rajasthan.

On its own Amla tastes a bit sour and tart (hence a great favourite with young girls, who love nibbling at it with chilly powder and salt) but its flavour is enhanced and the brackishness is removed with careful drying and preservation. In summer, a few pieces of dry Amla protects one from the deadly effects of a heat stroke, grandmothers maintained.

It has now regained its old popularity with doctors corroborating it as an antioxidant, helpful in reducing bad cholesterol and stimulating insulin production.

In our myths the berry is said to have appeared on earth out of tears of Brahma. In Sanskrit it has been called remover of all flaws: Sarva Dosha Har. It has also been popular as memory enhancer and mouth freshener.

From a culinary perspective, the berry is eaten in all forms and due to its high tannin content, it is also used for making natural dyes, ink and used in shampoos and natural hair dyes. Fabric printers use it as a color fixative. Tribals in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh use it copiously along with the bark of the Amla tree.

A special day Amla ki Navami, on the ninth day of the moon is set aside in the almanac in Rajasthan. A tale that is narrated that day is about one Aanvalya Raja, who had an enviable cache of Amlas. The Raja and his good wife had vowed that they’d eat their daily meal only after he had distributed one and a quarter mann (roughly 40 kg) of Amla berries among his subjects for their continued well being. As it happens every so often, his sons disliked such profligacy and felt he might empty out the royal coffers. They locked up the royal treasuries.

The unhappy king and queen left the palace in disgust and went to live in the forest. For seven days and seven nights they could eat nothing as there were no Amla berries to give away. On day eighth, gods created a vast palace and gardens full of Amla berries for them. They lived happily thereafter, giving away the berries and enjoying a good and healthy life.

Folk tales suggest that the God of Amla berry, Aaanvla Devta, was angry at such disloyalty to a good man. His anger resulted in droughts and so the sons and their wives met with their just desserts. They had already stopped the generous practices of their father and the people had become sickly and frail. They finally forced the sons and their families to flee the ruined palaces. Looking for jobs they arrived at their father’s new palace and the healthy and prosperous new city that had grown around it and began working as serfs while their wives became maids to the queen. One day while getting massaged the kind queen felt tears dropping on her back. She asked her veiled masseuse why she cried ? Once the story came out all was forgiven and they were accepted back by parents and happily joined in their daily donations of Amla berries to the subjects.

“Sat mat chhodey Soorma, Sat chhode pat jaye,” (The truly brave must remain true to their word. One betrayal of the word and out goes the fame), the wise old women who narrate the tale add at the end.

There is possibly a lesson in the tale for present day rulers. Rulers are expected to ensure the prosperity and health of the people they rule over and protect them from aggression. If the wellbeing of the people cannot be assured then bad times fall upon both the rulers and the ruled.

(Mrinal Pande, author, translator and editor is Group Editorial Advisor to National Herald)

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