Think summer and visions of tall, iced glasses of Maharashtra’s ubiquitous cardamom-perfumed raw mango aam panna or that of shikanji, the black salt-jazzed limeade of the North dominate. Probably just as much as those of the roasted gram flour coolant sattu, and the trio of bel (bael or Bengal quince), kokum (garcinia indica) and the gulab (rose) sharbats do.
But it would be rather erroneous to assume the above to be the ultimate in the country’s rather wide berth of summer drinks. Regional and hyper local libations abound. Each a unique example of India’s culinary diversity. A few, even vestiges of a bygone era that are struggling to reclaim a spot for themselves.
Lost and found
Hailing from a religion- and food-obsessed Goan Catholic family means that for us, the Bible and our cache of dog-eared, old recipe books are two of the most widely read genres. From the latter, one of the most prized is a certain Maria Teresa Menezes’ Goan food cookbook and memoir, The Essential Goa Cookbook. Yes, the same kind of vintage ones that often have recipes that begin with coaching the reader on how to first, “catch a hen” and then, “de-feather it”.
But this classic also has a recipe for a typically Portuguese-Goan summer coolant called orchata. Not to be confused with the Spanish and Mexican iterations of the rice and cinnamon-based drink horchata, orchata is a very different one. In fact, it gets its name from the almond-based orgeat syrup that’s generally found in cocktails like a Mai Tai and a Singapore Sling.
A very easy to prepare drink, orchata has a base of ground almonds and sugar, to which iced water and a few splashes of rose water are added. Generally a celebratory and special occasion drink, it is a very rarely-found libation in the Goa of today. In fact, Menezes speaks of the drink served at her sister’s wedding reception way back in 1935. “Trays of wine, liquors, the special xaropes, or syrups, of Goa … We children concentrated on orchata, and of course, sampled every tray that passed us!” she writes.
Today—thanks to the virtual explosion of non-dairy based milks—I make a cheat’s version of orchata with packaged almond milk. Three parts almond milk to one part iced water. To which, I then add a few drops of almond essence, and a splash each of sugar syrup and rose water. And voila. My very own orchata.
Moving south of Goa, whenever I find myself in Tamil Nadu’s temple city of Madurai, one of the first things I do is order up a full portion of the city’s de facto drink—summer or otherwise. And that would be jigarthanda.
Attributed to the sweet almond tree, badam pisin is almond gum, a natural coolant. This jelly-like substance gives a unique texture and taste to the jigarthanda. Literally meaning a “cool heart”, this drink is basically the sum of its badam pisin, nannari (sarsaparilla) syrup, chilled milk, sugar and ice cream parts. Interestingly, in the south, the liquorice-like sarsaparilla syrup is also mixed with iced water to morph into the equally refreshing nannari sharbat.
Another very rare-to-find summer drink I’ve been lucky to try during a detoxifying Ayurvedic treatment stay in Munnar, Kerala is panakam. Not very easy to prepare, this traditional drink from South India is a melange of the sweetness of jaggery, the fragrance of cardamom, and the sharp intensity of pepper and ginger. Filled with lots of essential electrolytes, this seasonal beverage is a great re-energiser and offers one instant relief from the burning intensity of the sun.
Of lime and tamarind
Now, as much as I like a glass of cold lassi, it is a ghol, the slightly thinner Bengali version that sets me right on a particularly sweltering day. Specifically, gondhoraj ghol. This combination of a lassi and buttermilk is made from curd, sugar, black salt, chilled water, and a squirt of Bengal’s prized, native gondhoraj lebu. Similar in flavour to southeast Asia’s kafir lime, this citrus fruit is a chimera of a regular lime and a mandarin orange. Thus, imparting a delicate fragrance and an explosive flavour to the tangy ghol.
Annual summer visits to my Jaipur-based maternal grandparents would result in a plethora of unknown delicacies for the budding gourmand in me to get introduced to. One such is the tongue-twisting and mouth-puckering imli ka amlana.
This less popular beverage from the Marwar district of Rajasthan is a tasty mix of tangy tamarind, black salt, and mint leaves in chilled water. It is sweet, sour, and spicy all at once. And the perfect way to chill during a scorching summer that this current one is threatening to be.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.