It's hot & it's cold

Desi swig: Seasons and the produce of regions bring out the flavours of non-alcoholic beverages across India, and the list is endless!

Nelikayi Tambuli
Highlights: 
Each region in India has devised its own local potion to combat inclement weather. In Bihar, the most popular drink is sattu ka sharbat, made of roasted gram flour and served with rock salt and lime or sweetened with sugar. In Uttarakhand, buraansh juice

After reading our in-depth Sunday Herald cover story on the traditional alcoholic brews of India, a teetotaller friend jibed if we had anything non-alcoholic to offer! So we dug deep into our travels across India to showcase some truly local drinks. Long before carbonated drinks, packaged fruit juices and nostalgia in a tetrapack, these desi brews were the mainstay of the Indian beverage market.

We remember how in the sweltering heat of Delhi, we would flock to the ‘machine ka thanda paani wala’ for some cold water or nimbu paani (lemonade). Or go to the bhanta or goli soda seller just to hear the pop of the marble going down the glass bottle. The shikanji wala would come rattling his bells with his earthen pot on a cart covered with a wet red cloth to keep the contents cool. Who can forget the heady aroma of the ripe bael fruit as the vendor strained its sweet fibrous pulp?

In winters, cauldrons of milk being diligently reduced is a common sight across North India as locals gather to discuss politics, cricket and cinema over cups of thickened hot milk. Summers would be dominated by traditional sharbats made of khus (vettivera), kesar (saffron), pista (pistachio), badam (almonds), phalsa (fruit of the Grewia asiatica) or chandan (sandalwood), until instant ‘Rasna’ and ‘Rooh Afza’ (Soul Quencher) usurped their place to become the standard offering at home. More a dessert than a cold beverage is falooda, made of rose syrup, vermicelli, bits of jelly, a dollop of ice-cream and sabja (sweet basil seeds) floating in it.

Seasonal fruits are deftly turned into an array of juices and squashes. While ripe mangoes are pulped to make the ambrosial liquid gold aam ras (a home industry in Gujarat and Maharashtra), raw mango is used for aam panna, spiked with pepper and rock salt.

Jaljeera or flavoured cumin water and pudine ka pani or mint juice are equally popular drinks, besides ganne ka ras or sugarcane juice. The sugarcane crusher often comes with strange brand names like ‘Chabawak’ (chewer) emblazoned in Devanagiri. In the sugarcane belt of Maharashtra, little shacks next to the fields have blindfolded bullocks going round in circles to power the machine. Much before your local barista gave you mind-boggling choices of coffee, it would be a ritual of sorts for the tender coconut seller to ask how you wanted your nariyal paani ­— neer/paani (just water) or malai (with flesh). Depending on your answer, he would pick a tender or ripe fruit and swiftly slice it with his knife as you recoiled when his knife gouged out a hole, letting forth a jet of tender coconut water.

These days, supermarkets are stacked with ready-to-consume pre-sliced tender coconuts or worse, packaged ‘Coco-Jal.’

In foodie heaven Indore, shikanji is not the tangy drink you find in Delhi, but a thick milkshake enriched with dry fruits. Believed to have been concocted by Nagori Mishthan Bhandar in Bada Sarafa (it still churns out a limited batch daily), the name shikanji (literally ‘mixture’) is derived from the blend of various ingredients – kesar, elaichi, javitri, jaiphal, kishmish, mattha and milk reduced for 12 hours and cooled for another 12 hours. Shyam Sharmaji of Madhuram Sweets in Chhappan Dukan personally ladles out chilled shikanji for visitors, urging them to savour the different flavours with each gulp — shrikhand, rabdi, dry fruits and milk! It’s a bit like thandai (minus the cannabis), and its equivalent in Pune is called Mastaani.

Amid festivity

On our Ramzan food trail around Bohri Mohalla in Mumbai, we discovered Idris Cool Drinks, a virtual juice laboratory that whipped up variyali (a greenish drink made of saunf or fennel) and rimzim (a masala drink of cumin and other spices) among its long list of fruity variants. In Kerala’s Malabar tract, we came across a range of shakes fortified with dry fruits like Sharjah, which uses local bananas, and aval milkshake made with roasted rice flakes.

Though North India is synonymous with lassis, Amritsar’s makhkhan te pede di lassi is in a class of its own. Enriched with pedas of white butter, this concoction comes with a crust of malai, and is served in tall tumblers. This thick, sweet buttermilk is the ultimate thirst quencher. Ahuja Milk Bhandaar (Lohagadh Gate) and Gyan di Lassi (Near Regent Cinema, DAV College) are legendary spots. The salty variant chhaach or chhaas (buttermilk) is more watery with ginger juliennes, coriander, and finely chopped onions. In South India, it is called majjige, and is sometimes tempered with curry leaves and mustard seeds.

Various parts of India have interpreted tea differently. In Kashmir, the brew of choice is kehwa/kahwah — sweet, green tea flavoured with cardamom and cinnamon, and garnished with slivered almonds. Another popular brew is the salty, noon chai, spiced with cardamom, almonds, pistachios, cinnamon and a bit of baking soda that gives it a distinct pink colour. In Ladakh, guests are traditionally offered gur gur chai, a salty, buttery tea, which is churned in large cylinders with a plunger making a ‘gur gur’ sound, hence the name! It is served in little cups or kora, often with a lump of yak butter.


Chhaas

The moment you finish it, your host is quick to refill your cup. You are supposed to keep drinking till the yak butter melts. And the yak butter never melts! Across the northern plains, tea is usually boiled with cardamom or ginger into ilaichi or adrak wali chai. In some places like Lucknow and Hyderabad, people love over-sweetened, which is known as khade chammach ki chai — there’s so much sugar at the base that a spoon can easily be planted erect in it! The latest craze gripping the nation — across Pune, Bhubaneshwar, Jaipur and other cities – is Tandoori chai. Tea is poured into an overheated earthen vessel which bubbles forth and takes on the earthy smoky aroma, before being served in kulhads (earthen cups).

Be it Hyderabad, Mumbai, or Malabar in North Kerala, patrons at Muslim-run eateries prefer washing down their meal with Sulaimani tea, sans milk. Kozhikode or Calicut is famous for its layered biryani tea, best enjoyed at Sagar Hotel. Kalladka, a highway stop en route to Mangaluru, is known for a variant called KT or Kalladka Tea.


KT or Kalladka Tea

Served at Laxmi Nivas Hotel, this strong tea was originally meant to keep truckers and travellers on the ghat route wide awake! Another big draw is the Irani chai made with reduced milk and often served with bun maska (buttered buns) at old world Irani cafes. Coffee lovers swear by the degree coffee of Kumbakonam, or metre coffee, which is tossed expertly between two vessels to mix the ingredients and make it frothy.

Each region in India has devised its own local potion to combat inclement weather. In Bihar, the most popular drink is sattu ka sharbat, made of roasted gram flour and served with rock salt and lime or sweetened with sugar. In Uttarakhand, buraansh juice made of rhododendron flowers is the beverage of choice.

In Kerala, nannari sharbat made of sarsaparilla extract acts as an excellent coolant. A small roadside stall near Kumari Banana Chips in Kozhikode furiously churns out glass after glass of the beverage. Madurai is known for its iconic Jigar Thanda, a delightful concoction of reduced milk, nannari sharbat, kalpasi (China grass), sago, Boost (malt-based chocolate drink) and ice cream to beat the heat. You can enjoy it at stalls opposite the Madurai Meenakshi Temple or in Karaikudi at British Bakery opposite the Periyar Statue Bus Stop.

Coastal cheers

Along the Konkan coast from Maharashtra to Goa and Uttara Kannada, punarpuli or kokum juice is a refreshing beverage in the sultry coastal climate. It has a cooling effect on the body, shielding it against sunstroke and dehydration. Its most popular variant is sol kadhi, an intriguing pinkish-mauve coloured drink made of kokum (garcinia), coconut milk, and fresh ground masala, used as a popular digestive cooler that soothes gastric problems and stimulates appetite.

In Karnataka, the hilly, forested tracts of Malnad in the Western Ghats yield a rich haul of herbs and vegetables and the Brahmin community uses them to make natural coolers called kashayas and tambulis. While researching the food of Karnataka for a specialty restaurant in Bengaluru, we stumbled upon various drinks with medicinal benefits, which are concocted to combat the prevailing season. Arshina tambuli is a lightly spiced yogurt drink made from fresh arshina or turmeric root and buttermilk. It serves as an aperitif and aids digestion.


Arshina Tambulli (Turmeric cooler)

 

Vonagiro nellikayi tambuli is made of dried nellikayi (amla or gooseberry) and fresh coconut. Packed with Vitamin C, it helps increase the body’s immunity in the cold climes. Elaneer rasa is rejuvenating tender coconut water blended with fresh coconut kernels to create a delicious sweet drink. Shunti bellada kashaya is a classic Ayurvedic brew of shunti (ginger) and bella (jaggery) water spiced with pepper, dry red chili, cumin, garlic and onion. The warm comforting brew typically fortifies you against minor ailments. A popular South Indian version of it is the summer cooler panakam, made of jaggery, lime juice, cardamom, ginger powder and black pepper.

While Karnataka’s love for badam milk (hot or cold) is legendary, in Mysuru, don’t miss a visit to Brahmin Soda Factory in the bylanes of Devaraj Mohalla. For over 80 years, this tiny shop has carried on the legacy of desi drinks, dispensing everything from nannari sharbat, masala soda and ginger milk to badam milk. With dedicated patronage and a steady stream of aficionados, it seems that these desi drinks are here to stay.

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It's hot & it's cold

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