The ‘sharbatwala’ of Bikaner
The blue-and-white shop offers a cool respite from the chaotic streets of Bikaner. I stand by the polished steel counter, watching the sharbatwala expertly mix golden-yellow syrup with crushed ice and water, and hand out glass after glass to customers. I’m at Chunnilal Tanwar Sharbatwale, an iconic shop on Bikaner’s busy Purani Jail Road. The shop has been around since 1939, when Chunnilal Tanwar used to dole out sharbat (cordials) made with a variety of flowers and spices. Now his son, Vidhan Tanwar, is carrying on the legacy, running the only shop of its kind in Bikaner. “We make these cordials from fresh flower and spice extracts. Everything is made at home; earlier, my mother used to make the cordials, now my wife does it,” says Tanwar.
The flavours range from bela (jasmine) and gulab (rose) to saunf (fennel) and laung (clove), as well as half a dozen others. “We source the ingredients from different places, e.g. we get the bela from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, kewda (pandanus) from Ganjam in Odisha, saunf from Gujarat,” says Tanwar. Summer is the busy season, but even on a cool January afternoon, customers keep stopping by for a kulhad or glass of their favourite sharbat, or to buy a bottle of concentrate.
Half of the shop is given over to seating, simple benches where one can seek refuge from the sun or rest one’s feet after shopping in the busy market areas nearby. A large, white, glass-fronted cupboard dominates the other half of the shop. It’s stacked with an array of bottles containing colourful cordials that range from pale yellow to bright red. “Pure rose extract is not red but people expect it to be, so we have to add artificial colouring to the gulab sharbat”, says Tanwar ruefully. Apart from gulab and the malachite green khus (vetiver), none of the other cordials contains artificial colours—just pure extract and sugar syrup.
Tanwar offers me a taste and I choose kewda. His assistant adds a handful of crushed ice into two glasses, splashes in some syrup, and fills half of each glass with water. He then mixes the drink by passing it between the two glasses. The sweetly fragrant kewda reminds me of the summer faloodas of my childhood and I gulp down the glass in no time. Big mistake, as Tanwar proposes to give me a taste of his entire repertoire. Next come the bela, gulab and khus, but I’m already eyeing the spice cordials. The elaichi (cardamom) is delightfully nuanced while the laung is appropriately piquant. My favourite turns out to be the saunf with its sweet anise flavours. Tanwar insists that I try the kesar (saffron) and the badam kesar (almond-saffron) as well. Both the syrups are bright amber and are mixed with milk (instead of water) to make a sweet, pale-yellow drink—a dessert-like end to the sharbat tasting.
Later that evening at Narendra Bhawan, the boutique hotel where I’m staying, I have another glass of the bela sharbat. The hotel sources the syrups from Tanwar’s shop and uses them in a variety of cocktails and mocktails. The bela sharbat is spiked with lime juice, cutting down its overt sweetness—an instant refresher after a day spent tramping around the streets of Bikaner.