Amasai has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, and many people are claiming it’s one of the healthiest and tastiest fermented milk products ever. Is it true? How does amasai taste? Are there any studies on its health benefits? Let’s dig into the matter.
What is Amasai?
Amasai, also called amasi or maas, is a thick fermented milk beverage traditional to South Africa and Lesotho. In general, amasai is similar to kefir or liquid yogurt but has a slightly stronger taste resembling cottage cheese. Recently, amasai has been gaining popularity in the Western world thanks to its potential as a natural probiotic with multiple health benefits.
The traditional way of preparing amasai is to store unpasteurized cow’s milk in a calabash and let it ferment for a while. After some time, the milk divides into a watery substance (whey) and soft lumps of starter amasai. The whey is drained, and fresh milk is added to the calabash. After a few hours of fermentation, snow-white lumps of delicious amasai are ready for consumption. (1)
Where Amasai Comes From
Amasai is a staple food in the traditional cuisines of South Africa, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe.
Sometimes amasai is confused with other fermented milk foods from the African continent, so here’s a quick list of essential differences:
- The Namibian omashikwa is prepared by fermenting buttermilk instead of whole milk. (2)
- In Kenya, milk is fermented in soot-lined calabash gourds to prepare mursik. The charcoal dust gives mursik a bluish hue and a smoky flavor in addition to its tart base. There is concern that the charcoal in mursik is a major risk factor for esophageal cancer in Kenyans. (3)
- Kivuguto, nunu, mabisi, and aewsso are milk beverages prepared through the spontaneous fermentation of milk in Rwanda, Ghana, Zambia, and Ethiopia, respectively. (4) These are very similar to amasai in terms of production, but their taste will differ greatly due to the unique probiotic profile of each drink.
The History of Amasai
In South Africa, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe, preparing amasai has always been not only a matter of culinary tradition but also a convenient way to preserve the available food. After all, fermented milk products have a much longer shelf life than raw milk.
The tradition of making amasai is hundreds of years old, and modern authorities recognize it as an essential part of South African culture, lifestyle, and health.
In 2014, the South African Rediscover Dairy initiative even recommended taking amasai daily for strong health, suggesting a few ideas on how to enjoy the drink: (5)
- Drink it on its own or with added honey
- Mix with fresh fruit
- Eat amasai with bread for a simple meal
- Pour some amasai over maize meal porridge (pap)
- Use amasai instead of yogurt or buttermilk in your baking recipes
- Add some amasai to your soups and pasta for a creamier taste
- Use as a natural recovery drink after physical exercise
Regarding the health benefits of amasai, the first studies on the matter go back to 2004. For example, Richard Mokua, one of the pioneers in the field of amasai research, noticed that the fermented drink significantly reduced the incidence of diarrhea in children who consumed it regularly.
But how exactly amasai helps with that?
Amasai & E. Coli
In general, Escherichia coli is a normal part of the human gut flora and usually doesn’t cause any harm. At the same time, some strains of E. coli can be extremely dangerous and are some of the most common bacterial pathogens in humans. (6)
In other words, it’s alright to have some E. coli as part of your gut flora, but you definitely don’t want to get any of it in your food.
The good news is that, according to Richard Mokua, amasai effectively kills off E. coli in just two hours!
In his research, Mokua took equal volumes of amasai, milk, and plain commercial yogurt. E. coli bacteria were added into all samples, which were then incubated at 37 C for eight hours. Every two hours, Richard Mokua evaluated the growth of the pathogen in all samples.
Here’s what he found: (7)
- In some amasai samples, E. coli was almost undetectable 2 hours after the start of the experiment.
- After 4 hours, E. coli was almost completely eradicated from all the amasai samples and some yogurt samples
- On the contrary, commercial milk served as the perfect environment for E. coli growth
Amasai as a Probiotic
Mokua’s findings, as well as the studies that followed, confirm the idea that amasai is a powerful probiotic. After all, the common feature of all probiotics is that they contain beneficial bacteria and can inhibit or kill harmful bacteria.
In this aspect, Mokua’s research highlights that both yogurt and amasai are probiotics (with amasai being slightly more potent) while whole milk is not.
What are Probiotics?
According to the World Health Organization, probiotics are live cultures of microorganisms that provide various health benefits to the host when administered in adequate amounts. (8)
In general, the term is used both in regards to specific bacterial cultures (for example, different Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species) and the foods that contain them (amasai, kefir, sauerkraut, and others).
The Benefits of Probiotics
In general, probiotics are great for anyone’s health, regardless of the specific kind of probiotic you decide to take. Let’s take a closer look at what exactly they can offer you, according to scientific studies!
Improved Immune System
One of the greatest health benefits of all probiotics, including amasai, is immunity support. This effect is achieved through a double action: probiotics boost the body’s immune system AND fight harmful bacteria on their own!
Here are some exciting findings on the matter:
- The lactic acid bacteria in amasai have antibacterial properties against a wide range of pathogenic bacteria, including Escherichia coli and Salmonella enteritidis (9)
- Some probiotics are effective in preventing Clostridium difficile infection, a dangerous side effect of conventional antibiotics (10)
- Probiotics modulate the function of macrophages and lymphocytes, two types of immune cells that are essential against bacterial and viral infections (11)
- Probiotics are beneficial for any kind of allergic process. For example, studies have reported that probiotics are effective in reducing the symptoms of hay fever (allergic rhinitis) (12)
Some other diseases that could benefit from the immunity boost of probiotics include ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, chronic pouchitis, and liver disease. (13, 14, 15, 16).
According to the latest estimates, bacteria make about 0.3% of any person’s body weight. Essentially, we’re talking about 7 oz for every 154 pounds (or 200 g for 70 kg) of body weight! (17)
The lion’s share of this bacterial mass resides in the human gut and is collectively named the gut microflora. When you think about it, it’s not surprising that probiotics are extremely beneficial for gut health!
- Probiotics prevent and treat infectious diarrhea (18)
- Some probiotic strains alleviate lactose intolerance (19)
- Probiotics significantly improve stool consistency and bowel movements in patients with chronic constipation (20)
Thanks to their ability to modulate and support the immune system, reduce inflammation, and keep harmful bacteria at bay, probiotics are beneficial for a wide range of age-related conditions.
These include Alzheimer’s disease and resulting dementia, as well as age-related cognitive decline in general. (21, 22) Moreover, there is preliminary evidence that probiotics could have anti-aging properties of their own.
Studies have reported that progeria (a disease characterized by accelerated aging) is accompanied by an increase in the populations of Proteobacteria and Cyanobacteria in the guts—with a simultaneous drop in Verrucomicrobia abundance. At the same time, the microflora of centenarians is abundant in Verrucomicrobia and really scarce in Proteobacteria! (23)
Probiotics and Nutrient Absorption
All probiotics, including amasai, can improve nutrient absorption. According to studies, here’s how it works: (24)
- Probiotic bacteria decrease the pH in the guts, leading to improved micronutrient solubility
- Probiotics enlarge the absorption surface of the guts
- In some cases, probiotics directly enhance the absorption of some minerals, particularly calcium and iron
- Some strains of probiotics even produce vitamins on their own, like B12!
As you see, the list of health benefits that probiotics can offer you is fabulous. So, what kind of probiotic should you pick? Is amasai a better option that kefir or yogurt?
Let’s see how they compare!
Amasai vs. Kefir
The main probiotic cultures in amasai belong to the Lactococcus, Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, and Leuconostoc spp. genera. (25) The same bacteria are present in kefir. (26)
In terms of taste, most people describe amasai as tart and milky, somewhere in the middle between plain yogurt and cottage cheese. Kefir usually feels more sour and effervescent.
Regarding nutrition, amasai is a slightly better source of energy, calcium, sodium, healthy fat, and vitamin A. Kefir is somewhat higher in calories, total carbohydrate, and phosphorus. (5, 27)
In general, both amasai and kefir are healthy dairy products and natural sources of probiotics. Ideally, consuming a bit of both every once in a while is a great idea.
Amasai vs. Grass-Fed Yogurt
Grass-fed yogurt usually has a gentler taste than amasai, so it’s probably a bit more suitable as a healthy dessert or salad dressing—but that’s a matter of personal preference.
Both foods are rich in probiotic cultures, but the probiotic profile of amasai is generally more diverse. Grass-fed yogurt is a better source of protein, calcium, and vitamin A while amasai is a bit higher in total fat and potassium. (5, 28)
All in all, amasai is a slightly better choice if you’re looking for probiotic health benefits while yogurt is slightly more nutritious.
Amasai vs. Other Forms of Dairy
Compared to most other dairy foods (like butter, cream, and cheese), amasai is a better source of probiotic cultures. On the other hand, amasai isn’t very filling, as it contains just 64 calories per 100 g. (5)
Another detail to remember is that amasai, just like other fermented dairy drinks, may feel somewhat exotic to a typical Westerner. If you’ve never tried it before, don’t judge it straight after the first sip: let yourself get used to the taste!
Should You DIY Your Amasai?
Making amasai is simple and easy, but here’s one important thing to remember. Homemade amasai can taste very different from one batch to another, even if you’re using the same starter in all cases.
This effect is based on a lot of factors:
- The type of containers you use to ferment your amasai
- What you do with the containers between the batches (nothing, wash, rinse, smoke, etc.)
- Temperature, air pressure, humidity, sunlight
- Presence of other fermenting foods in the same room (there’s a risk of cross-contamination)
To summarize, if you don’t mind a bit of randomness in your amasai, then making it at home could be an exciting activity to try!
How to Make Amasai
1. Take some milk from a trusted supplier.
Ideally, this milk should be whole, unpasteurized, and coming from grass-fed cows.
2. Pour your whole milk into a clean, non-transparent container.
You can use a calabash, a jar, or a ceramic pot. It doesn’t matter much, as long as the container can be closed tightly to seal the fermentation process.
3. Add a bit of older amasai or an amasai starter purchased from a trusted seller.
If you’re using a commercial starter, follow the provided instructions. If you’re using older amasai, don’t worry much about the dosage. Adding too little of it will make the fermentation a bit slower, adding too much will give you a thicker amasai that you’ll be able to dilute later with milk until you’re happy with the result.
4. Close the container and leave it to ferment for a while at room temperature.
After several hours to a full day, drain the transparent liquid (whey) and leave the curdled mass in the container.
5. Add some more milk to the container, and leave it to ferment at room temperature.
Your end goal is a thick kefir-like liquid. This process can take anywhere from a few hours to two full days, so make sure to check the progress every once in a while.
Drink amasai on its own, add some honey for extra sweetness, or combine it with fresh fruits and nuts. Once the amasai is ready, you can store it in the fridge for about two full weeks.
Amasai Drink Recipes
Amasai is delicious on its own, without any extra ingredients. If you want to get creative, however, here are a few recipes to try!
Banana and Chocolate Amasai Drink
Perfect for breakfast, lunch, or as a quick healthy snack.
- Amasai – 1 cup
- Raw cocoa powder – 2 tablespoons
- One medium banana, raw
- Chop the banana into medium-sized chunks.
- Put all the ingredients in a blender and mix well.
- Pour into a cup and enjoy!
- This drink also makes an excellent post-workout blend, so try taking it with you to the gym.
Spiced Honey Amasai Drink
This drink isn’t for everyone, but make sure to give it a try if you usually enjoy spicy recipes.
- Amasai – 1 cup
- Organic honey – 1 tablespoon
- Ground cinnamon – half a teaspoon
- Orange zest, finely grated – half a teaspoon
- Ground cloves – a few pinches
- Put all the ingredients in a blender and mix well.
- Some people may find this drink too spicy, so make sure to have a bit of plain amasai at hand to dilute the beverage if needed.
- As an optional ingredient, consider adding a bit of black pepper into the blend.
Amasai is a fermented milk beverage traditional to South Africa. This fabulous probiotic food has a long list of health benefits to offer—and you can easily make your own amasai at home!
Keep in mind, though, that you may need some time to get used to the tart flavor of amasai if you don’t usually enjoy fermented milk products like kefir or plain yogurt.