Exploring the history of India’s homegrown summer drinks


This summer has been unlike every other. We’ve spent more time indoors and under our bedsheets than outdoors and on beaches. It almost seems like we’ve moved back a decade or two in time – to when frequent travel to local cities or far away countries was not as easy and inexpensive as they used to be until a couple of months ago. For instance, our grandparents grew up spending their summers flying kites on their terraces and sunbathing on their balconies: quite like we’re currently being forced to. In addition to storing Vitamin D3 in their reserves, they also seemed to be busy concocting resplendent summer drinks to satiate themselves. Little did they know that the unbridled appreciation of these drinks would travel down the generations and be placed in the menu cards of outdoor cafes, high-end restaurants and juice bars across the world.

Ask any mocktail aficionado, and they will tell you that a drink is more than a simple three-step recipe – it is a fine combination of the culture, weather, ingredients and the history of its birthplace. Knowing the journey of the sweet, delectable sip of lassi that you just took, will make the drink all the more gratifying for you. So save your fashionable bikinis and airline tickets for later next year, and instead share a glass of your grandmother’s favourite summer drink with her while she relives her childhood. The following are some drinks and stories of Indian origin:-

Aamras

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Aaamras


Literally translated as “Mango Juice,” Aamras  (“aam” – Mango, “ras” – juice) is much more than simply that. The mango fruit also known as the King of Fruits or the Fruit of Gods has been a pride of the nation for over 4000 years now. The first few references to the fruit were in the Vedic and Upanishad scriptures as the “Rasala” and the “Sahakara” fruit – the trees of which were not allowed to be cut. More commonly referred to as “Amra-phal,”  it soon reached South India, where it was translated to “Aam-Kay” and eventually “Maamkaay” as the Tamils would pronounce it. The Malayalis then christened it “Maanga” – and the name stuck until the Portuguese first tasted the fruit on arrival in Kerala. “Mango” they called it, and “Mango” it remained for the rest of the world.There are 280+ types of mangoes, and each one is more coveted than the other. However, the mangoes used in the first Aamras drink were said to be Hapus mangoes (also known as Alphonso mangoes) that originated in the Sindhudurg district of Devgad, Maharashtra. Parag Inamdar who runs a Pune-based chain of Maharashtrian vegetarian restaurants called Potoba reckons that Aamras has been “a part of the summer Maharashtrian meal for generations.” On collecting similar evidence the consensus is that the Aamras originated in Maharashtra, and then travelled quickly to Gujarat where they added milk and ginger to make it easier to drink.

Originally prepared as a thicker sweet dish, the Aamras has now evolved to be a smoother drink that can be enjoyed multiple times during the day. Served as “mango lassi,” “mango juice,” “mango pulp” or “mango curd” in other foreign countries, Aamras is now prepared and relished in many different forms- worldwide.

The simplest recipe that is also closest to the original Amras is as follows:-

  1. Scoop up the halves of a Hapus or Alphonso mango
  2. Pulse the fruit in a bowl till it takes on the consistency of a smooth pulp
  3. Sprinkle ginger powder, stir and pour into a serving dish
  4. Garnish with a pinch of saffron and chill for an hour before serving

Aam Panna

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Aaam Panna

How would you feel knowing that the very fruit you savour every summer is responsible for initiating wars back in the day? Let’s retrace the steps of our forefathers back to the 1530s during the reign of the first Mughal emperor – Babur. He was allegedly petrified of fighting the mighty Rana Sanga of Mewar when Lodi is said to have brought him a mango. Delighted by its flavour and smitten by its texture, the emperor gained all the strength he needed to fight Mewar so that he could lay his foundation in the birth country of mangoes.

Rumour has it, later Shah Jahan showed a similar passion for the fruit when he forced his son, Aurangzeb, under house arrest for storing (and probably eating) all the mangoes of the palace himself. It was around then in Shah Jahan and Jahangir’s courts that the famous Aam Panna was born. Known for its heat-resistant properties, the Aam Panna is one of the most widely sold summer drinks in India. It is especially appreciated by those who don’t have a sweet tooth and still wish to enjoy the delicate flavours of mango. While most of the country drinks it cold, it can also be warmed and sipped on like a soup (a secret my grandfather introduced me to during the past couple of weeks.)

Now that you know it’s history, you’ve earned yourself a tall glass of the refreshing yellow-green drink – and here is how you can make it:-

  1. Chop a raw mango into small pieces, and put them in a pot
  2. Level up with water until the mango pieces are submerged and cook till soft
  3. Once softened, let the mangoes cool down before you transfer them into a blender
  4. Blend with mint leaves and add sugar, cumin powder and salt to the pulp
  5. Add 5 – 6 cups of water and stir. You could add more based on how thick or thin you like it
  6. Chill or heat before serving

Mattha and Lassi 

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Lassi

Buttermilk in the West is very different from the Buttermilk in the East – especially India. While in the West, they use it as the sweet base for pancakes, we Indians use it to make some of our favourite drinks like Lassi and Mattha.

While there are several variants of the Lassi- ranging from Chocolate Lassi to Mango Lassi, the authentic and traditional version has no additional flavours. On further probing into the history of this drink, it was found that it first originated in Punjab – since milk was produced in abundance and was always a staple drink of the state. Mr Arun Chopra, from Punjab, who is an executive chef of the Taj Mahal Hotel, says, “In the old days when there were no refrigerators, the Punjabi farmer used to drink milk cooled in a clay pot and mixed with curd and sugar and stirred by a wooden stick.” This sweetened form of cold milk is exactly what we refer to as Lassi.

Interestingly, Mattha is effectively the salty counterpart to Lassi, and yet its origins trace to Maharashtra and not Punjab. An ideal detoxifying drink to beat the summer heat, a glass of Mattha is usually served after the meal since it is known to aid in digestion. The following are the traditional ways to make both Lassi and Mattha:-

Lassi

1. Take two cups of chilled yoghurt (market bought or homemade)

  1. Blend the curd until it becomes smooth and velvety in texture.
  2. Add 10 tbsp of sugar/ jaggery (increase or decrease as per taste)
  3. Add 2 cups of chilled water or milk
  4. Churn the mixture until the sugar dissolves and the drink is frothy at the top
  5. Garnish with crushed cardamom powder and saffron strands
  6. Serve with crushed ice-cubes

Mattha

  1. Take two cups of chilled yoghurt (market bought or homemade)
  2. Whisk the curd until it becomes smooth and velvety in texture.
  3. Add roasted jeera powder, salt, ginger and coriander leaves
  4. Add water for desired consistency
  5. Refrigerate before serving.

Shikanji

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Shikanji

Similar in taste to a lemonade, Shikanji is downed by the buckets by Indians especially during the summers. For all those agog to know more about the history of this preferred alternative to water, wait no more. Our Indianized spiced lemonade is said to have taken birth in the alleyways of a small town called Modinagar in Uttar Pradesh. It was there that Chaayos – a tea cafe chain – would appease their frequented visitors with a special “Jain Shikanji.” It wasn’t long before its inception that the word of this seasoned lemony drink grew, as did the queues outside Chaayos.

The following is a simple way to taste the delicacy of Modinagar at your own homes:-

  1. Heat 100ml water with 4tbsp of sugar/jaggery to create a sweet syrup
  2. Let the syrup cool
  3. Blend some scraped ginger with 100ml water and strain the extract
  4. Squeeze two lemons, add in the syrup and the ginger extract
  5. Add in cumin powder, black salt and crushed mint leaves into the mix
  6. Finally pour soda or water to the mix and your lemonade is ready
  7. Serve chilled

Chaayos is now also selling Shikanji powder which you can simply stir in a glass of water for the ultimate “Jain Shikanji” experience.

Rooh Afza

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Rooh Afza

We owe our scarlet-red glasses of Rooh Afza to Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed, owner of Hamdard Laboratories, a Unani and Ayurvedic pharmaceutical company in India. With the desire to concoct a cooling drink for the people in Delhi, Hakim mixed a couple of herbs in hopes to lower the rate of heat strokes caused by dehydration in the city. For a drink that was born during the British colonial rule, in 1906, Rooh Afza quickly won the trust and fondness of its customers who passed on the love for the drink down the generations. With an exquisite mix of portulaca seeds, grapes, chicory and coriander leaves amongst other herbs and edible flowers – the rose drink is now used for a wide variety of purposes – to bring out the colour and a delicate flavour in cheesecakes, milkshakes, custards and ice-creams or simply a sherbet.

The name of the drink was inspired by a character: the daughter of King of Firdause (Heaven), in the book Masnavi Gulzar-e-Nasim authored by Pandit Deya Shakar Nasim. While Rooh translates to “soul,” in the Persian language, Afza signifies “nourishment,” hence Rooh Afza is that which nourishes the soul and the drink quite truly does so. The intricate illustration on the cover of every Rooh Afza bottle was designed by artist – Mirza Noor Ahmad, and first printed on a wrapper of butter-paper. Later celebrities like chef Nita Mehta and actress Juhi Chawla – promoted it as an all-season mocktail that grew to become a staple in every Indian household. Today it is a bright reminder of celebration and festivities, and an easy way to lighten up any lugubrious face.

Make it a part of your summer fête with the following simple steps:-

  1. Pour 3 cups of water in a bowl
  2. Add Rooh Afza syrup with additional sugar/jaggery if you so require
  3. Pour in a glass and stir well
  4. Serve with the option of adding ice-cubes

Feni

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Feni

If you’ve swum in the cool waters of Goa and sunk your toes in the warm sands of its beaches, you’ve probably also tasted some delightful Feni. Derived from the Sanskrit word “phena” or froth, Feni is a local liquor that bubbles up and forms a light froth when shaken in a bottle or poured in a glass. Regardless of its high potency it leaves no aftertaste on your tongue – quite unlike any other alcohol you might have had. It is formed by distilling the cashew fruit and has an interesting mix of fruity and nutty flavours.

We owe this drink to the Portuguese colonists who first planted cashew trees in Goa. Since then, the makers of Feni have been collecting cashew apples, crushing them under their feet – like grapes are crushed for wine, and juicing the pulp until it’s ready to be fermented in earthen pots that are dug underground. After being distilled thrice, the final product is a fragrant liquor that has a volume of 45% alcohol.

Interestingly, much like the Scotch can only be produced in a distillery in Scotland, the Feni can only be made in Goa. We received this “Global Geographical Indication” registration in 2009, which has given the coastal state a golden opportunity to amp up their production of Feni and market it to the rest of the world.

With that, we pray that the lockdowns lift soon so that we can spend the rest of our summers with Feni in hand and the Goan cool breeze brushing against our cheeks.

Toddy

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Toddy

Time travel back to 1786, and you will arrive at the birth year of a glass of hot toddy. While most of us prefer cool drinks over the summer, some of us still prefer to sip on a hot drink especially when we are down with an unfortunate cold due to change in weather or summer allergies. If you can relate, you’d be happy to know that the miraculous healing powers of some hot Toddy promise to heal your cold faster than ever.

Toddy stems from the Hindi word “tārī” or “taddy” signifying a beverage made from fermented palm sap. As its name suggests it is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting the sap of palm trees and later mixed with hot water, sugar and spices. Founded during the British colonial rule, the Toddy was quickly taken into the limelight by the British in the United Kingdom where people would relish it during the snowing evenings of their endless winters.

I highly recommend you enjoy a glass or two of the hot Toddy during rainy and windy evenings at the tail end of summer, while reflecting on its rich history and how long of a journey it has traversed before finally arriving between your cupped palms.


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