Chunnilal Tanwar runs a small shop on Purana Jail Road, in the heart of Bikaner, Rajasthan. His home is a lab of sorts where he experiments with spices, herbs and flowers to create sharbats. His latest creation is a cooling laung (clove) sharbat.
The shop has been around since 1939. It was set up by Tanwar’s father, who would order the choicest ark, or essence, from Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh. While he would create sharbats with bela (jasmine), gulab (rose) and kewra (pandanus flower essence), Tanwar, who took up the reins in the 1980s, has expanded the repertoire.
“One of the sharbats he has is called panjeeri and is made with coriander,” author Sangeeta Khanna posted recently on Instagram about her 2017 meeting with Tanwar at Narendra Bhawan, a boutique hotel in Bikaner where he would conduct tastings for guests. “These are the artisan products of the country and I am glad there are some people still doing it the old way,” she writes.
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Indeed, some traditional ways of sharbat-making continue to be popular—keeping alive an art that has made way over the past few decades for packaged juices and colas. In fact, the only image sharbat may conjure up in many minds today is Rooh Afza, an iftar staple.
The history of sharbats in India is both fascinating and complex. According to food historian Salma Yusuf Husain, author of the book 50 Great Recipes—Sharbats, the word sharbat comes from a Persian word, the root of which is sharb. Sharbat in Arabic means a light beverage. She mentions that versions of the sharbat, called panaka, were made in ancient India as well. In southern India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala, panakams are still consumed regularly.
References to these can be found in Vedic literature. The Arthashastra refers to drinks made with molasses syrup. In southern India, tamarind and gooseberry were combined with cardamom, ginger and citrus species. “The earliest record of a sharbat as we know it today dates back to 200 BC, to the Shiraz school of cooking. At that time, these were made by hakims as medical draughts to heal the digestive and nervous systems,” says Husain. There was a blackberry and mulberry one for cough, and a pear sharbat for the liver.
“In India, during the Mughal period sharbats became particularly popular. It is said that Empress Nur Jahan smelt roses while walking in a garden. It reminded her of the sharbats her mother used to make in Iran. So she called a hakim and asked him to bottle the essence of roses,” says Husain. “The art has nearly disappeared today.”
It took a pandemic, with the focus turning to immunity and well-being, to bring sharbats back into the spotlight. Each ingredient used in the traditional concoctions is aimed at serving some medicinal purpose. Tanwar, for instance, has had a lot of requests for kewra sharbat, which he claims can help with a bad cough.
In Uttarakhand, the locals believe buransh sharbat, made from rhododendron flowers, is good for the digestive system. Shubhra Chatterji, culinary researcher and director of award-winning shows such as Chakh Le India and Lost Recipes, has been posting on Instagram about this sharbat, made with the scarlet rhododendron flowers that bloom for a very short period in March. The appearance of the vivid red in the brown winter landscape heralds the advent of spring. “It is a ritual to make buransh sharbat in this region,” says Chatterji, who also runs Tons Trail, a social enterprise seeking to bring economic development to the Tons valley, with her husband Anand.
Making it is not easy. The flowers are difficult to pluck. “It takes time to clean the flowers as you have to remove the inner whitish part. The petals are then cooked down in water over a wood fire,” explains Chatterji. One can either cool the liquid and have it immediately or make a concentrate with sugar syrup. Chatterji prefers the former as it has a lovely tartness.
She learnt the art of making buransh sharbat from Balveer Rawat, or Mamaji, as he is popularly known. Singh, who now runs a home-stay, educated himself on the preservation techniques while working with an organic produce procurement firm. “For years, he has been making this sharbat and sending it to consumers across the country,” she adds.
Tanwar, too, has loyal customers across the country. Even today, the 62-year-old combs Ayurvedic treatises to understand the healing properties of ingredients. Panjeeri, added to their repertoire five years ago, features whole coriander, believed to be cooling. “Women are given dhania laddoos after delivery for this very reason. Rajasthan doesn’t have a lot of natural vegetation as it’s a very hot region. You need to have cooling drinks to battle this heat, so my father set up the sharbat shop,” he says.
One of his best-sellers is the bela (jasmine) sharbat, made with the smaller-size varietals that are available for just a month and a half in summer. He tests each sharbat before he makes it available to customers. For instance, he recently whipped up a cinnamon sharbat, only to realise it could lead to constipation as it was heating the stomach. He believes his cardamom sharbat helps relax the mind and ensure sound sleep.
At Narendra Bhawan, Tanwar’s bela sharbat would be served as a welcome drink. “At our hotel, we had conceptualised a hospitality story centred around local flavours. Chunnilal was one such artisanal producer that we showcased. We blended his bela sharbat with the citriness of lemon for the welcome drink. He also did tastings for guests,” says Nitin Sud, the hotel manager.
Some of these sharbat shops act as capsules of nostalgia. Take the Ondippili sharbat made in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, for 115 years. Made with the nannari (Indian sarsaparilla) root extract, “the drink is considered an effective heat buster in the arid climate of Madurai. Pure nannari supplies are procured from Palakkad in Kerala. The roots are soaked in fresh water for 12 hours, boiled for 15 minutes before the extract is collected, cooled and mixed with sugar syrup and citric acid,” noted the current owner of the Ondippili sharbat brand, N. Guha Ganapathy, in a February interview to The Hindu.
Kolkata has Paramount, set up in 1918 by Nihar Ranjan Majumdar and initially known as Paradise. “Selling sharbat was a front. It was actually a covert meeting ground for those plotting to overthrow the British. Nihar Ranjan belonged to the then well-known revolutionary outfit Anushilan Samity. He changed the name of the shop to Paramount when the cover was blown,” notes a 2018 article in the Outlook Traveller.
Dolon Chowdhury, a banker and food and lifestyle blogger, first heard of Paramount from her grandfather. “He would tell me how this place was frequented by the likes of Subhas Chandra Bose. But it became an integral part of my life when I was studying at Presidency College, which was located opposite the sharbat shop. It was best for broke college students,” she says. If they were in the mood for a treat, she and her friends would opt for the more expensive dub sharbat, made with coconut water, an in-house syrup, and garnished with coconut pulp slivers. The recipe was apparently given to the owners by the famous Bengali chemist and educator Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, to create something with nutritional value for college students.
“Even now, when I go to Paramount, I look back at my college days.... Paramount is paramount,” she laughs.