The Long, Hot Summer
BY: LAVINA MELWANI
Jul 16, READING, PENNSYLVANIA (LITTLE INDIA) And the Indian thirst-quenchers which cool you down...
Imagine your throat is parched into metallic threads by the hot tropical sun and 100 degree temperatures - and then like a mirage in a desert, a tall chilled glass of nimbu pani, Delhi nimbus or limes no less - appears before you. A few miraculous sips and you feel life flowing into you again. Nothing cools you quite like nimbu pani - and Indian immigrants no matter where they go, reach for the limes when they need to cool down fast.
For those who have spent time in the heat and dust of India, there are a handful of other quick sure-fire cures, such as lassi, chaas, sharbat, thandai, sugarcane juice, chilled rose or mango milk and pomegranate juice. All heavenly drinks, which take you out of the hell of a hot, dry summer. And if they can't get the real thing, immigrants are turning to ready-made bottled copies of their favorite childhood drinks, which can be found in Indian grocery stores.
India has always had a rich mix of fruits, vegetables, berries and herbs and everything seems to explode on the trees in summer as the branches bend over with the weight of a bounty of mangoes, oranges, lemons, litchis and guavas. Juice stalls offering fruit mixes from pomegranate to pineapple to vegetable juices spring up everywhere.
In coastal areas in India, especially Mumbai, naryal pani or coconut water is the drink of choice. Walk to Nariman's Point and sip the soothing nectar right from the coconut shell, with the bonus cream or malai of the coconut, which the vendor expertly scrapes out for you. How can a sugary cola compare?
Sunil Rihal, a financial planner in New York, remembers well the soothing drinks of summer. Rihal, who was manager of a five star hotel in India, recalls that fruit drinks were big and one of the most popular during his time was a frothy concoction of Limca and pomegranate juice. Growing up in Delhi, he and his siblings would return home from school and the heat of the outside world to soothing squashes of raspberries, oranges, pineapple and lemonades made by their mother, Santosh Rihal.
A cooking teacher, she transformed the kitchen with the fruits of summer, turning out fruit jams and beverages for the hot weather. "The summer season would start and she would be in the kitchen, preparing big quantities of squashes and filling up the fridge," says Sunil Rihal. "She would basically make them from scratch."
Santosh, who now lives in the U.S. with her children, would conjure up many drinks, including the very hrefreshing panna, which is made from raw mangoes. There was also a bright purple drink made from the Phalsa fruits, which are indigenous to India. She would also squeeze large quantities of limes and bottle them. When guests came, it took just a bit of the concoction, ice cold water and sugar to make a tall glass of shikwanji.
The most popular drink, however, is lassi, which is made with yogurt or buttermilk and water. Santosh says she served lassis in many forms, the kacha lassi, which is made with milk; the salted lassi laced with cumin, which was a favorite of the grown-ups and sweet lassi for the children. There was also lassi with a few spoons of Ruh Afza, a popular fruit syrup made by the Hamdard company. She recalls, "Lassi has to be made fresh, and so half an hour before the children came home from school, I would make the lassi and keep it in the fridge."
Lassi and other summer drinks continue to hold their lure for Indian Americans. Navin Patel who runs the Sabzi Mandi store in Jersey City says demand peaks during the summer months, especially the rose syrup of Ruh Afza, which is particularly popular with Punjabis and Pakistanis. In Edison or Artesia, during the searing summer months, vendors set up roadside stalls selling sugar cane juice.
"Wonderfully refreshing fruit drinks such as strawberry lemonade and Indian fruit punch, fruited or spiced yogurt drinks called lassis and teas are especially effective fruit quenchers, because the acid in the citrus juice and yogurt both cools and cleanses the palate," says Suvir Saran, chef at Devi restaurant and author of Indian Home Cooking. He considers sweet lassis, such as mango, pistachio and saffron-cardamom lassis, desserts in a glass. Recognizing the passion Indians have for fruit, he creates an Indian fruit punch which is great for hot summer days. He says, "A cup of cream smoothes and enriches the sweet-tart taste of fruit juices and turns the juice into an ethereal drink. I make this with a number of commercial fresh fruit juices that I buy at the supermarket."
Fruit punches are popular in the west, but interestingly the origins of punch lie in panchamrita - the Sanskrit word panch means five and amrita means nectar. In her book Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, Yamuna Devi who has lived in India, United States and England, describes the many Indian drinks. Panchamrita, which is a temple drink, is made of milk, yogurt, honey, sugar and ghee. More recently punch has come to mean more or less any sweetened juice, served hot or cold. She says there can be many variations on this theme, such as thandai, a luxurious amalgamation of nuts, raisins, and fennel-flavored milk, which lends nutrition and flavor to any light meal.
To make a delightful Vedic chilled punch, she suggests trying any of the following combinations: papaya nectar, pineapple juice, orange juice, guava nectar, yogurt, lime juice and crushed ice; pineapple juice, coconut milk, apple juice orange juice ground cardamom and crushed ice; passion fruit nectar, pineapple juice, orange juice, lemon and lime juice and crushed ice.
For any immigrant who grew up in India, the bottles of multi-colored sharbats are perhaps the most fascinating: the green of khus khus, the red of gulab and the yellow of kewra. Oh, the sheer sweetness of it, with ice tinkling in the glass!
The word sherbet came originally from the Arabic word shariba, which means to drink; it evolved into sharbat in Hindi. In a verbal roundabout it came into English as sherbet.
While most in this hectic age buy the ready made gulab sharbat or at the most boil sugar and water and add rose essence and color to it, there are some brave souls who actually make it from scratch. In her book Yamuna Devi describes how to make Ruh Gulab Sharbat, starting with fresh picked rose petals that are crushed with a mortar and pestle and then immersed in boiling water in a metal container with cardamom seeds and set aside overnight to infuse.
She says, "Homemade rose syrup, lemon or lime juice and fresh pomegranate juice make this pale pink beverage elegant and exotic. In India, a container made from freshly tinned metal is recommended for soaking the petals, because the metal preserves their color."
Different parts of India offer different beverages, and communities add their own interpretations. She writes about the Perfumed Sandalwood Crush or Vrindaban Goswami Sharbat, which originated from the Radha Ramana Temple of Gopal Bhatta Goswami in Vrindaban and was centuries old. In fact, pure sandalwood is sold in small bars, which have to be chipped off to make an infusion, or sweetened sandalwood syrup can be used, and the recipe even includes dried malati or camomile flowers.
There's also barley tonic or Jawar sharbat, which is a real thirst quencher in Gujarat and is served much like lime tonic, over ice. The rather bland flavor of simmered barley and water is heightened by infusing lemon zest into the hot liquid.
She even includes versions you may never have hard of, such as Lemon Flavored Yogurt shake or Nimbu Lassi. She says: "In India this beverage is popularly made with four ingredients: sugar cane juice, lime juice, fresh ginger pulp and yogurt. The flat sweetness of fresh cane juice pleasantly complements the acidity in the citrus juice."
Summer is a time of glorious mangoes and as if eating them wasn't enough, we like to drink them too! Mangoes dominate many Indian drinks, be it lassis, milk shakes or juices, and immigrants like to incorporate the fruit in every way they can. Truly, the nectar of the Gods!
Anjum Anand, author of Indian Everyday, lives in London, but her recipes all harken back home, including must-haves like adrak masala chai (spiced ginger tea) and chaas, which she calls Namkeen Madrasi Lassi or South Indian flavored buttermilk.
Having left their homelands and the trees burgeoning with fruit behind, how do immigrants keep cool in America? Here it seems westerners have discovered the power of yogurt, something Indian immigrants knew all along. So the mainstream too is big into smoothies and flavored yogurts and drinks. For Indians, happily, the desi grocery stores have done everything, short of flying their grandmothers out here, to bring home tastes to America.
As the beverage industry commercializes home recipes, scores of companies from Hamdard to Dabur have got into the business of packaged and bottled drinks, which are finding their way to diasporic shores. Indian stores also sell ready made bottled lassi, yogurt for lassi, sharbats and rose milk, as well as fruit juices like guava, pomegranate and litchi. The syrups for sharbats come in many flavors, which are dear to Indian tastebuds : almond, saffron, poppy seeds, cardamom, kewra, sandal, rose, and lemon. The homeland in a bottle, you could say.
The stores keep a smorgasbord of different brands and mixes not only from India but many other parts of the Diaspora, including Singapore, Pakistan and Dubai. According to Sam Patel of Patel Brothers, which is headquartered in Chicago, many of the bottled syrups they sell under their brand-name Swad are actually made in Dubai.
The second generation may have grown up far from the mango orchards of Navsari, but they certainly love their mango fix. Indeed, is this passion something in the genes, something you carry from generation to generation? Mango lassis are a fixture of Indian restaurants on both coasts and probably Alaska too! Indian tastes in fruit are finding their way into the bars of trendy restaurants as well.
Eons ago the Vedas extolled a mysterious drink, Soma, as the nectar of the Gods. Over 114 hymns in the Rig Veda are dedicated to the wonders of this brew, according to K.T. Achaya, author of Indian Food - a Historical Companion. No one quite knows its ingredients, but historians suspect it was Sarcostemma acidum, which is still called somlata in several Indian languages. The soma plant might have also been the Indian bhang plant, Cannabis sativa or even Amanita Muscarita, a fly agaric mushroom with hallucinogenic effects.
Whatever the plant, the Soma drink is lost to the world. Indian immigrants, however, still seem to be on a search for that heavenly brew, and these bottled versions of childhood favorites may be just one way of recapturing youth, or absent that, at least getting some respite during the long hot summer months!
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