“What even is sugar-free Rooh Afza?” says my daughter, holding the bottle aloft and rolling her eyes. “It’s like saying ‘chocolate-free chocolate.” I grin sheepishly — the sugar-free version of our favourite summer-time and Ramzan drink, launched by Hamdard a few years ago, was acquired for the first time during this Ramzan as a concession to an increasingly health-conscious (and older) family.
On the days my husband fasts during Ramzan, a platter of fruits and dates and a jug full to the brim with ice-cold Rooh Afza are a must on the iftar table, while everything else is changeable — some days, we have pakoras, on other days kababs, and sometimes the piece de resistance is sabudana khichdi. But Rooh Afza is a constant — as it is in millions of households across the world that celebrate Ramzan. Around 3-4 years ago, there was a shortage and we had to substitute it with watermelon juice and orange squash – but Ramzan just didn't feel right without Rooh Afza.
Strangely, we don’t drink it very often at any other time of the year and quite often the last jugful is served with Eid biriyani and keema curry. This isn't because we don’t like it, but because it feels excessively indulgent — Rooh Afza is basically 88% sugar syrup — which explains the purchase of the sugar-free version.
Well, I am happy to report that it doesn’t taste bad at all, notwithstanding my daughter’s derision. True, there is that slightly metallic aftertaste that most sugar substitutes (in this case, maltitol and oligosaccharides) impart, but there’s enough going on in the drink itself — as always — to mask that.
Also read: Making a case for Sehri foods during Ramzan
There’s always been a great Rooh Afza divide in India, though, between those who love the ruby red drink and those who can’t stand it. It also generates controversy — a famous scene in 2013’s Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani has the protagonist making fun of the drink, for which the makers of the film were taken to court by the company. Many of my friends can’t stand its sticky rosy sweetness either, or will only have it in the form of the very south Indian ‘rosemilk’ — a shake with cold milk and Rooh Afza (other rose syrups will do at a pinch) and if you’re feeling fancy, soaked sabja (sweet basil) seeds.
“Rooh Afza is pure nostalgia in a bottle,” says mixologist and beverage consultant Nitin Tewari. “When people have it, they are straightaway transported to their childhood, when they didn’t have so many options for beverages. It’s the association most of us have with family gatherings and birthday parties, where Rooh Afza would inevitably be served. It’s like the Coca Cola campaign that went something like ‘open a Coke, open up memories’... for Indians, that drink is definitely Rooh Afza,” says Tewari. “Yes, some people don’t like it… maybe because it’s not too classy, not too cool,or maybe because most people make it too thick,” he adds. According to Tewari, the trick to creating a great glass of Rooh Afza is to hold back on the syrup and let its essence do most of the work, rather than concentrating the flavour too much by adding too much of it. Adding a dash of lemon and substituting water with plain soda will do the trick as well. “The fizz in the soda cuts the sugar — Rooh Afza probably has as much sugar as Coke but you don’t find people complaining about the taste of Coke because the fizz makes it more acceptable,” he says.
Also read: Sharing an iftar thaal at Bhendi Bazaar
As Indian flavours in beverages make a comeback, mixologists have picked up Rooh Afza as well to create unique drinks with that kick of nostalgia. Recently, Yangdup Lama, the head mixologist at Sidecar in Delhi, unveiled a Rooh Afza-based drink called Dilli 6. “The drink may look straightforward, but a sip is enough to send you spiralling into a whirlwind of nostalgia and flavour. It takes a while to uncover all the notes this glass delivers, and we're sure you've had enough of us going on about it!” the brand gushed in an Instagram post. Rooh Afza, fresh watermelon, ginger, coconut milk wash and rose chocolate as garnish come together to create this splendid drink (well, their version also has vodka, but it's not mandatory).
But it's not just nostalgia that keeps Rooh Afza popular and earns it the respect of mixologists. Its essential flavours of rose and kewra are overlaid by a large number of ingredients in a combination that the company is quite secretive about, but experts have tried to break it down and concluded that it contains trace extracts of various herbs, fruits and flowers like purslane, mint, coriander, watermelon, orange, pineapple, strawberry and the European white lily and blue star water lily.
Despite the 88% sugar content, it is not just a simple sugar syrup, after all, but a complex mix of flavours that continue to be the most popular ones on the subcontinent. “It has been around for over 100 years and remained popular throughout… you have to respect something that has maintained that kind of quality and consistency for so long when so many other products have come and gone,” says Bengaluru-based mixologist Robert Hospet, brand ambassador and consultant at Foxtrot Beverages Private Limited, which makes the Svami range of non-alcoholic mixers. “As a mixologist, I know how difficult it is to replicate the same drink again and again, and they have done it for a century. You gotto have love and respect for a product like that,” says Hospet.
If you don't care much for the flavour, it is possible that you've had it in an over-concentrated form, say mixologists – so try adding just a dash of it in your drink next time. And if it is the sugar content that bothers you, you have the sugar-free version now – though I'd go so far as to say that some things are just so good that they defy health concerns – like good chocolate, and salted caramel ice-cream, and Rooh Afza.