Food: SOUL DRINK COOL

Allow a single rose petal to float atop the drink. Drink deep to be alive in this summer
Ratna Raman Delhi

Life originated in water, and the human baby released from its bag of amniotic fluids marks important neonatal moments by engaging with colostrums and nourishing breast milk. Primeval connections with both water and milk, the base materials for all drinks, ensure that with a body composition of 75 per cent water, humans remain programmed for a life-long affair with fluids. Thirst is a primary and primal instinct that addresses societies in myriad ways. Perforce civilisations have always revolved around river systems and water bodies. Our ancestors reared cattle, nurtured vegetation and sluiced fruit, root and stem in order to keep themselves hydrated.  

The suras whisper of mythical rivers of water, milk, honey and wine, and the Vedas celebrate somras. Meanwhile, the real world, also composed of three quarters of water, has built up an extensive thirst-deflecting arsenal.

The green coconut (elaneer/daab), for instance, is the planet's first potable drink. The therapeutic palm fruit (nongu in Tamil) from the Palmyra tree, mixed with sugar, coconut water and cardamom, remains a well-meaning shadow contestant.  

Madasgascar's traveller's palm (ornamental in India) stores rainwater in each stem flank below its fanned out leaves to quench the wayfarer's thirst. The first natural water storing source known to humans, the traveller's palm precedes the water-holding leather bags of North India's Bhishtis who provide sustenance to the thirst-afflicted. You can still see Bhishtis around Jama Masjid in the walled city of Old Delhi.

Before refrigerators were invented, all manner of substances that cooled and hydrated the body were pressed into service. Fruit, flower, herb and seed were selectively pillaged to make cooling beverages, for the shade and the earthen pot were once our only safeguards against the heat. 

The etymology of the word sherbet comes from Arabic, and onomatopoeically captures the noisy "shra" sound of drinking. The root word shariba means drink. Travelling to Turkey, the word ensured that delicious syrupy concoctions of water, fruit and sugar would be known all over the world as sherbets

Summer is redolent with memories of side-stepping the heat in friendly homes cooled with khus screens, and glugging quantities of cool drinks to lower body temperatures. All summer fruits - the watermelon, phalse, plums, grapes, mango, pomegranate and sweet-lime - are liquefied for standard consumption.  Lemon and aam panna (green mango) drinks, however, remain preferred favourites. 

Cooling beverages mean serious business in India, on regular days and in the festive season. Visitors to daily households in the North were greeted with a drink of cold water and then served shikanji (spiced-up lemon juice) or roohafza (a 100-year-old unani distillation of innumerable beneficial herbs and sugar).  

Holi marks the arrival of thandai, that lovely milk drink ground with almond, poppy seeds, sugar and pepper which heralds the end of the cold season. Rama Navami celebrates summer in April with panaham, a delicious combination of melted jaggery, dried ginger and cardamom (made and known primarily to south Indians) that also forms part of fluid temple offerings to devotees. Members of the Sikh community brave the heat to distribute sweet lassi and rose milk to passers-by at makeshift piaos (water shelters) in the hot season.

Ganne ka ras (sugarcane juice), a proletarian elixir, rules the Indian sugarcane belt, where the sea-loving coconut does not spread out its fronds. This turgid mud-green liquid, with ginger and lemon chunks wedged alongside long stems of sugarcane in crushers and topped with smashed ice, transforms imbibers into glucose-charged dynamos. The difficulties of storage and quality control have edged out this life-giving sap, which has been replaced by several unromantic packaged Glucon-D drinks. 

When we were little and regularly frequented fruit juice stalls in the local market to drink sugarcane juice or a mixed fruit juice, the palette of colours from pale yellow to green-brown, orange and deep pink were mesmerising. Drinking pomegranate juice involved a straw-less siphoning of pleasure. Hands cradled the precious crimson liquid, and by the time the glass was inverted the liquid was all gone and the head was triumphantly thrown back, reiterating fulfilment.  

Straws, however, enable luxuriating over a drink and are the iconoclast's response to the high Hindu tradition wherein for the drinking vessel (irrespective of hot or cold beverage) to make contact with the mouth was taboo. Specific to the cultural practice of ecchal in Tamil and jhoota in Hindi, the pouring of fluids into the mouth from a height might have safeguarded oral hygiene but effectively throttled all drinking pleasure. Simple straws have brought the slurp back into this important rite of passage, wherein the   moment of sip, draw and swallow orchestrated by lip, throat and tongue approximates hedonistic delight.  

Compelling journeys were made to distant lands through books, comics and films, to participate in endless rounds of rehydration. We hung out beside paddle pools in suburban America while Schultz's Charlie Brown and Ketcham's Dennis the Menace put up lemonade stalls outside their homes. Snoopy and Dennis guzzled root beer, while Charlie Brown drank chocolate milk. Lee Falk's Phantom oscillated between cold milk and orange juice, but Christie's Hercule Poirot swore by his sirops. 

Gingerbeer washed down food consumed by Enid Blyton's Famous Five at picnics in the English countryside. Janet's mother sanctioned the adding of water to the last bit of jam to make drinks for SS club meetings. A breathtaking moment in the epical film The Sound of Music was when the camera focused on the magical pink lemonade served to the baroness and the Von Trapp children beside the lake. (Tang markets this now, bereft of the alpine backdrop.) 

Meanwhile, a huge cross-fertilisation of drinks across cultures was in process. The liquid sherbets of the Middle East over a period of time froze into French sorbets and crystallised into Italian granites, enthralling the world with their crackly cool panache. 

Asian explorations with dairy products continued. Anticipating American accusations about lactose-intolerant Asiatics, the lactobacillus, the friendliest of all bacteria, was made an ally and harvested through curd. 

Yoghurt, a word of Turkish origin, lent itself to the making of Aryan (by adding water and salt), a popular drink sold at street corners in Istanbul alongside their more publicised teas and coffees.

In India, yoghurt drinks are sugared and salted with delicious results. Lassi - whipped curd with sugar, essences and spices - is in abundant supply in Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, and replaces traditional milk and jalebi breakfasts in the summer months. Buttermilk (fermented milk from which butter has been extracted) remains a popular summer drink. Called chhaach in North India, it is diluted with water and flavoured with cumin powder and rock salt, while South India  dresses up its buttermilk (moeru) with pepper, curry leaves, asafoetida (heeng, a strong smelling resin spice) and green chillies. 

Ever since the big spider frightened Little Miss Muffet off her curds and whey, the West began transforming all its curd into tuffets of cheese and dried whey powder. In recent years, a change of heart has led to the introduction of frogurts (frozen curd desserts) and smoothies in international markets. Made by blending yoghurt with sugar, fruits, nuts, coffee, vanilla and cocoa, smoothies demand attention on the national and international scene.

Is this the beginning of halcyon days in the 21st century in various parts of the world? 

In the previous century, simple drinking pleasures were interrupted by the whirr and swirl of technology, bottling and tining. We canned and tinned our beverages and bottled our juices, loading them with colours, flavours and second-grade preservatives, generously proffered by our chemical scientists.  

Shop shelves keeled over with bottled squashes. In India, Kissan and Noga produced several fruit flavours, including lemon barley, while Rose marketed lime cordial. Sodium benzoate became a household companion sought ardently by armies of housewives, who now bottled pineapple, mango, grape and plum juices in the comfort of their homes.   

We moved also from partially processed juices to fully aerated drinks.  Overnight root beer went out of fashion and colas were sworn in as the governing elite. With the colas marched sodas that fizzed their way into milk and ice cream and berry drinks. Next, the chemical industry unveiled laboratory-made compounds and flavours and colours simulating all those natural flavours that we had limited access to in the real world. By the 1970s, Tang in orange and pineapple flavours, with medically prescribed daily quotas of Vitamin C, was a cool favourite in India. Meanwhile, soft drink concentrate Rasna made inroads into the domestic Indian market.

At first, India had Coke, Fanta, Limca and Goldspot. Then 'socialist' George Fernandes, in heroic St. George fashion, threw out the cola dragons in the late 1970s after the Emergency. The local colas hung on, and free market enterprise brought the banished colas too back into our neoliberal universe soon thereafter. As the years hurtled by, local and international colas glutted markets, homes, refrigerators and stomachs, effectively aerating our worlds.

Turf wars were fought between brands. Our cine stars didn't merely drink colas, they risked  lives, hurtling down elevators and mountainsides and braving all manner of dire consequence for the pleasure of consuming a synthetic aerated coloured fizzy fluid. 

Badminton ace Pulela Gopichand turned down cola sponsors and environmentalist Sunita Narain spoke of collateral damage to local sources. They remained struggling Davids attacking  invincible Cola Goliaths. Zero calorie diet colas signalled our advent into choppy waters and the bottom of the trough was hit with Red Bull, Jolt, Brawl and Cloud 9 and their high caffeine storms.

Various oral rehydration solutions, such as Gatorade and Lucozade, and Minute Maid's pulpy fruit drinks, and Maaza mango with milk and soya  blends have rallied around. Old faithfuls such as jal jeera, a peppery drink made with cumin and mint, and lemon buntas or goli sodas (carbonated water bottles with marbles) are  popped open to pour over a glass with freshly squeezed lemon, sugar and masala to remedy the heat.

The last decade has seen a perceptible shift. Real lemon and fruit drinks are  marketed by our remiss cola giants. Possibly Ramdev's invective against the colas' meretricious pleasures is working. His unpalatable bottle-gourd juice recommendations has inspired Real to market spinach and cucumber juice, while Dabur offers  amla and spinach soup powder. Fab India has diversified into fruit drink powder sachets, each more exotic than the other. Meanwhile, everyone has been retrieving recipes from both recall and living relatives.

Flower power is infused into sherbets made from the rose, the hibiscus and the rhododendron, and flower drinks are marketed in different parts of the country. Marigold, jasmine, primrose, nasturtium, calendula and rosehips find their ways into restorative brewed teas for the fainthearted. Shop shelves that once boasted of bottles of Kissan and Noga fruit squashes now display bottles and tetrapacks from several lands containing guava, litchi, kiwi, cranberry, passion fruit, watermelon, and every other fruit known to man. 

The nannari root (sarisapilara, purportedly used in making root beer) is still marketed in bottles.  Khus, kewra and thandai are bottled by Haldiram. The kokumn, that bewitching fruit of the Western Ghats, is soaked awhile in water and then ground, with sugar and roasted cumin seed powder. Once strained, it delivers the khatta meetha tangy punch of the Konkan coast.  Substitute the water with soda and watch this cup of purple happiness bubble over! 

Another popular drink is made from woodapple. Called bel in North India, it is available all through the hot season. Once an orangey sherbet drunk only by the ancients, it has made a comeback at the India International Centre in Delhi and on the city's streets. The vlaambayzam in South India (striated texture and a distinct sour-nutty taste, looks rather like tennis balls forgotten in the wet undergrowth) fruits around August and makes a delicious juice topped with jaggery or honey. 

Traditional milkshakes continue to be made with fruits in Ahmedabad, Bombay, Pune and Delhi, while milkshakes flavoured with synthetic syrups in all the colours of the rainbow attempt to elbow them out of the way. Fresh fruit juice parlours selling all manner of mocktails are part of all cityscapes. Tea and coffee cafés, brewing and chilling beverages at will, are the new watering holes for teetotalling youth.  Anytime instant karma is guaranteed through sachets of ice tea and cold coffee marketed by Nestea, Nescafe and Bru.  Twinings tea bags showcase exotic fruit decoctions that can be brewed and subsequently cooled. 

Indigenous sattu drinks are the whiz kids on the block. These hoary lentil drinks, made from roasted gram and moong - now turned zero dairy, and mixed with cold water and sugar - threaten to replace all protein powder drinks. Varieties of bottled water - spring, mineral, sparkling, flavoured et al - have proliferated, gladdening the ranks of the glucose-intolerant and the cholesterol-challenged.

To this enormous deluge gets added the swirl and swivel of mocktails and cocktails that the swish set consume at upper-end watering holes. Stunningly encased in glass and awash with colour, each one of these is a clarion call to drink life to the lees. Maybe now is a good time to pour out the bubbly and take slow sips as it speeds up the adrenalin, sets the pulse racing and enables ascendance to a spirited state of being.

Box 
ROSE-ALMOND SMOOTHIE

5 fresh desi roses in red, pink or peach 
20-25 almonds, soaked in water and peeled
600 ml of fresh cold yoghurt  
4-6 tablespoons of sugar (Don't worry about the sugar, it is infinitely superior to the corn syrup that forms part of many packaged drinks. Improvise with honey for a Mediterranean touch.)
Serves four
Remove rose petals from stalk. Keep a few petals for garnishing. Coarsely chop almonds. In a chutney jar, place rose petals, almonds, sugar and 25ml of curd. Grind to a smooth paste. Transfer rest of the yoghurt to a blender or milkshake attachment. Add 20 ice cubes, pour in ground almond rose paste, and blend. Serve immediately in tall beer glasses. 
Allow a single rose petal to flaot atop the drink. Drink deep to be alive in summer.

MOM'S TOMATO GINGER PICK-ME-UP
6-8 medium-sized desi tomatoes
2 lemons
5 grams of ginger
A pinch of salt
5 tablespoons of sugar
Serves four 

Cut tomatoes into four and toss into a mixer grinder. Add chopped ginger, sugar and salt. Cut lemons into half, deseed and squeeze the juice on the tomatoes. If the lemons are very fresh, the peel of an entire lemon could be ground with the rest of the ingredients. For the less adventurous, extricate zest from one whole lemon and add into the jar. Add 10 ice cubes and grind smoothly. Pour the juice through a large stainless steel sieve into a jug. This will require dilution with cold water before it can be poured into glasses and consumed. A WELCOMING COLD DRINK THAT INSTANTLY WARDS OFF IRRITABILITY, SUNSTROKE AND LOW SPIRITS

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2011