My favourite Indian drinks

From the floral rose sherbet to the refreshing shikanjvi, there’s a plethora of traditional drinks that I love to have

01 Sep 2021

I have these vivid memories of my aunt’s house. She was an aunt, twice removed, so there weren’t too many regular or frequent visits, just customary ones. We visited only on very important festivals and occasions, like weddings, Satya Narayan poojas, or during Ganpati. In those days, unlike today, where a caterer is promptly and unhesitatingly commissioned to produce food and snacks, we made good by serving just a drink. Either bottles of colas or colourful fake orange and raspberry-flavoured drinks and lemonade, each with a straw erect like a radio antenna in the bottle, all arranged on a tray, would be circulated by the servant in the house (forgive me, but that’s what they were called then). If the host was thrifty, the drinks would be poured into small glasses, one bottle to three parts, and apportioned to the gathering. Coming back to my aunt, twice removed. At their house they served their own concoction. It was a chilled glass of a milky pink liquid, and it was referred to as “Doodh Cold Drink”. What it was, was half a glass of Rose Sherbet, made with water and rose syrup, and half a glass of milk, chilled in ice. It was refreshing, cooling, and delicious. Damn the festival, we kids would make sure this was one visit we did not miss. Standing close to the large kitchen door, we would grab a glass and quaff it down, every time a tray full of that nectar emerged from inside. It took me a little time to figure out the combination and recipe, but after a couple of trials and errors, soon I was making glassfuls every other evening. Of course, I never ever felt the need to visit my aunt, twice removed again.

Speaking of poojas and religious ceremonies, another Indian drink, or should I call it a libation, is the Panchamrita that is served as a spoonful of “tirtha prasad” at poojas. We’d do the annual Satya Narayan pooja at my grandfather’s with great reverence. The pooja area would be decorated with banana leaves, and delicate jasmine torans, all the silverware would emerge out of the lockers, coconuts, fruit, incense and ghee lamps would adorn the shrine. I would watch with keen interest as the old octogenarian family priest would chant and mutter shlokas. Since he had a very prominent squint, we’d never know who he was looking at. So, we would sit silently, as he would bathe a small silver statue of Ganpati, first with water, then milk, and then honey, sugar, curd, ghee. This would be topped with a couple of tulsi leaves. This same liquid would then be mixed thoroughly and served as prasad. It had the most ambrosial and divine taste (pun intended). Not just satisfied by the spoonful served out by the priest, often not knowing who he was trying to bless, I would later on in life, try combining the same ingredients to make a taller drink, with a bit of ice, with some success. Milk, honey, sugar, curd and ghee is a celestial combination. In the right combination, it produces a drink which cannot be termed as milky nor a lassi. It’s got its own character and complexion. Sweet but with honey not sugar, with the smokiness of ghee and the tartness of curd, Panchamrita is mellow and luscious. But no amount of trials and combinations could make it taste like the Panchamrita made by the squinted octogenarian priest, during the pooja.

I love Falooda. My college, the noted Sir J J School of Art in Mumbai, was perfectly located for anyone who wanted a good cheap meal. Gulshan-E-Iran at one end, Police Canteen Kheema at the other, an old stable converted to Radio Restaurant right in the middle of Musafir Khana. Musafir Khana itself with roadside kababs and Naan-chaap and Dabeli. Crawford Market with Sadanand Udipi, Bengal Hotel, Civil Restaurant and Badshah Cold Drink. Run by a burly Irani gentleman, Badshah Cold Drink is still famous for their Falooda. A Falooda is probably hundreds of years old. They say, the Mughals who looked to Persia as their cultural model, brought the Falooda into India. It was Jahangir, the fourth Mughal ruler, who was particularly fond of eating a combination of fruit cream and vermicelli noodles. That combination calibrated, fine-tuned and enriched by later rulers resulted in the version we have today — a cold mixture of rose syrup, vermicelli, and subja (sweet basil seeds) with milk, usually served with ice cream or kulfi. Considering that Kulfi originated in India somewhere in the 16th century, I suppose the Falooda in this version came soon after. But who cares when it first came to India? It’s now a pure Indian drink. Much like Madurai’s famous Jigar Thanda, another version of Falooda. Jigar Thanda means, “something that cools the heart.” It is believed that the drink was invented to cool the hearts of Muslim settlers in India, especially on wedding nights. Falooda is considered the innocent brother of the Jigar Thanda. Jigar Thanda is made with generous helpings of condensed milk, almond resin or gum, sarsaparilla or nanari root syrup, sugar and ice cream. Almond is an aphrodisiac, and milk, calming. Together, the almond resin would give strength, and the milk would soothe. Honestly, I’d change the name from Jigar Thanda to Usandhi Thanda. Don’t know what that means? Look up the word! It is milkshake on steroids.

It would be unconceivable that any of us would stand on a footpath and drink a sherbet made right there on the road, with dubious looking water, chancy looking ice, in utensils of suspicious sterility, mixed by the grubby fingers of a man with debatable hygiene and sanitary abilities. The honest truth is, I would — if he was making Shikanjvi. There is nothing like an ice-cold Shikanjvi on a sweltering North Indian summer afternoon. Don’t be mistaken, it’s not just fresh lime water. A glass of Shikanjvi is a deadly combination of the juice of two lemons, one little chunk of ginger, two teaspoons of raw sugar, half a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper, and you can add jeera and black salt as well. Shake it all up with ice and water and it’s ready to cool you on the hottest of days.

These are just a few of my favourite Indian drinks. The ones I do not have to elaborate on, but which also make my favourite list are sugarcane juice, freshly squeezed with ginger and lemon; Kala-Khatta with tonnes of black salt; and Pune’s iconic drink Mastani. Mastani is a thick milkshake that is topped with huge scoops of ice cream, dried fruits, syrup or fresh fruits. The drink can be made with any fruit, though the original Mastani, named after Peshwa Bajirao’s famed lover, was first created in Pune with just fresh Ratnagiri mangoes.

Honestly, this was supposed to be a write-up on Indian drinks. When it turned into a list of mouth-watering desserts, I have no idea. Nevertheless, I hope this quenches your thirst, for knowledge as well as literally.

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