When the hot, dusty winds started blowing in from the deserts of Rajasthan they would bring a visitor to author Rakhshanda Jalil’s childhood home in Nizamuddin, Delhi. Hakeem Abdul Hameed would drive up in his Fiat and present her father, his friend, a bottle of Rooh Afza. The gentleman is no more, and the decades have loosened family ties, but the jewel red, Unani syrup made by the hakeem’s Hamdard (Wakf) Laboratories since 1907 still heralds in summer at the Jalil home. “My mother still makes Rooh Afza sherbets and milkshakes. Specially during the days she sets up water kiosks to serve thirsty passers-by,” Jalil says.
Across the country, every sip at Paramount, the sherbet-only shop at Kolkata’s College Square, comes with the assurance of history. It is a muggy April evening, and the shop, seven short of a century, is brimming with the thirsty: There are college students, elderly couples, young romantics and singletons emptying glasses of Green Mango, Grape Crush and Cocoa Malai under a tall ceiling, watched over by mounted photographs of grim-looking Bengali nationalist leaders from the previous century.
Thirst busters: (clockwise from left) Sherbets at Paramount, Kolkata; Nehru sips on Sosyo; the Harnarain Gokalchand shop in Old Delhi; Rooh Afza was formulated in 1907; and sogade beru sherbet is rich in vitamin C.
Rooh Afza and Paramount are successful legatees of the old summertime tradition of sherbet making introduced by the Mughals. Every household has its own tale and its signature recipe for the blistering months. Arun Kumar recalls his mother used to crush the root of the Indian Sarsaparilla—known as nannari in Tamil, sogade beru in Kannada and anantamoola in Sanskrit—and toss it in while making their afternoon tea. “It was common practice to add items with medicinal properties to our daily food,” says Kumar, who now helps run a family business in Gokarna, Karnataka, that has been manufacturing sherbet concentrates for 25 years.
Most sherbets claim some medicinal properties, based as they are on Ayurvedic and Unani traditions. Kumar’s Ashoka Honey and Food Products brews Sarsaparilla with saffron and sugar to make a honey-coloured concentrate. The sweet, vitamin C-rich sogade beru sherbet is consumed all year for its medicinal value, but it’s the summer months that make it indispensable in traditional Karnataka homes. It is also popular as a blood purifier and the manufacturers claim sogade beru and the sherbet made from it helps contain hyper-acidity, urinary tract infection and anaemia.
The Rooh Afza website too cites a long list of health benefits—it aids in digestion, relieves acidity and dehydration, is an energy drink, and much more. It has survived changing tastes and cola giants, even acquiring its first brand ambassador in actor Juhi Chawla a couple of years ago. But what’s remained unchanged is the distinctive, overly-sweet, slightly medicinal taste that evokes strong sentiments (you either love it or hate it, there’s no middle path) and its versatility—it is had as a sherbet, as a shake, a smoothie, in sundaes, custard and mocktails, drizzled over kulfis and falooda.
Another drink without a consensus about its taste is Sosyo. “Sweet and sour”, “very tangy”, “like toned down vinegar with lots of sugar”, “reminds of cider”—the aerated drink from Gujarat attracts many adjectives. To complicate matters, the bottle’s tag line is The taste with a twist. Limited to Gujarat, other than some following in Mumbai, it was originally called Socious, a Latin word meaning “ally” or “comrade”; the name a nod to the reformist, nationalist era it was first manufactured in. Mohsin Hajoori, a Surat industrialist, closed his family business of manufacturing Vimto, a British drink, in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for Swadeshi and introduced Socious—complete with a secret formula—in 1927. Thirty years later, the name was formally Indianized to Sosyo.
Paramount’s signature daab sherbet, a coconut-based creation, is of historical extraction too. It was Prafulla Chandra Roy, the nationalist leader and entrepreneur, who goaded the Mazumdar family, the owners, to invent a drink that would cool young India and fire their entrepreneurial zeal.
In 1962, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was photographed taking a sip of Sosyo. “My grandfather loved it,” says Farah Khan, a Surat-based entrepreneur who was in the drink’s marketing team in the early 1990s, “but my children have it only at their school.” That is because the school serves no other cold drink. “Nowadays, children go for Coke and Pepsi,” Khan says.
It’s a common gripe. “Today’s generation wants everything instant, ready-to-serve. They don’t want to make the effort to mix a drink,” says Vineet Arora, a scion of an Old Delhi family that is one of the oldest FPO licence holders in the city.
The Aroras’ store, Harnarain Gokalchand at Khari Baoli in Old Delhi, reputedly the largest spice market in India, has been selling murabbas, pickles and syrups since 1944 under the Harnarains brand. It is one of the few shops where the buyer is not greeted by heady stacks of spices and dry fruits. Instead, the shelves are lined with colourful bottles of rose, kewra, bael, khus, even sandalwood syrups. Arora’s great grandfather, Harnarain, set up the shop to sell home-made concoctions based on family recipes. The recipes have remained unchanged, though they are now manufactured at their factory in north-west Delhi.
It’s the sameness of tradition, the assurance of familiarity in a fast-changing world that has kept consumers loyal. “We are a regional player and we are surviving because of brand loyalty and the taste,” says Abbas Hajoori, the founder’s son and a partner in Hazoori & Sons. “There’s something comforting about the Rooh Afza: the same old glass bottle when everything else has gone plastic, the flowery label and, of course, its distinctive taste,” says Jalil. The Dub Sarbut (as it is listed on the Paramount menu) too has withstood shifting eras and tastes; so has Paramount since 1918. Indeed, opposite the small sherbet outlet is a billboard featuring a Bollywood actor advertising aerated cola and cleavage.
Shamik Bag, Mayank Austen Soofi and Pavitra Jayaraman contributed to this story.
Raisins in ‘aam panna’, nutmeg and saffron in ‘lassi’, and other tricks to spice up your drink
This summer add a twist to your usual glass of lassi and aam panna with recipes we learnt at the Sharbat Making Workshop held by Red Earth, an independent arts organization focusing on the revival of Indian culture, in April. “We all have memories of sherbets that our grandmoms made when we visited their houses as children during the summer break. My idea is to revive some of those cooling, delicious drinks. Besides having cooling properties, most are healthier to have than popping open a soda bottle,” says Himanshu Verma, who conducts these workshops at his Lado Sarai studio in south Delhi.
Be cool: Sattu ka Sherbet is a healthy way to escape the heat. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Of the 15 varieties he teaches, which include ber and phalse ka sherbet, imli ka panna, gulab ka sherbet and ginger-lemon cooler, we chose four. “Beat the rising mercury, say no to colas,” says Verma.
Kishmish ka Panna
20 kishmish (raisins)
6 glasses of diluted aam panna (recipe below)
Wash the raisins thoroughly and soak them in lemon juice for at least 2 hours. Blend in the mixer and add to mango panna (add this quantity to about six glasses of panna). Strain and serve with kala namak sprinkled on top.
Serves 6-8 (diluted)
4 medium-sized green mangoes
1/2 cup sugar
2 level tbsp rock salt
1 level tsp roasted cumin seeds
A handful of fresh mint leaves
1 roasted red chilli (optional)
Cut the mangoes into three slices each—two from either side of the seed and one with the seed in it. Pressure-cook the mangoes with one small cup of water. Turn off the heat as soon as the cooker whistles. Open the cooker after 5-7 minutes and leave to cool. Grind the sugar and roasted cumin seeds in a food processor (if you are using chilli, grind that too).
Blend the mint leaves in the processor separately.
When the mangoes are cool, squeeze out the pulp and discard the skin and seeds. Purée the mango pulp in a blender until smooth. Add ground sugar, rock salt, roasted cumin seeds, chilli and minced mint leaves. Blend well. This makes the concentrate. Add chilled water before serving according to taste.
1/2 kg yogurt
3-4 tsp sugar
(you can use less if you wish)
A couple of pinches of grated nutmeg
A pinch of saffron
Soak the saffron in a glass of warm water and let it stand for 2-3 hours. Mix the yogurt and sugar in a blender. Add the saffron water and blend again. Serve in a glass with ice, and garnish with nutmeg.
Sattu ka Sherbet
2 tsp sattu (roasted gram powder) Shakkar (Indian brown sugar) to taste
Add about 2 tbsp of sattu per glass and shakkar to taste. Top up with chilled water and ice, mix and serve.
Saunf ka Sherbet
Serves 20 (diluted)
100g badi saunf (large fennel seeds)
1.5 litres water
2 pods of green cardamom
Wash the saunf thoroughly. Boil in 1.5 litres water on medium flame for 20-30 minutes till the water is infused with the essence of the saunf. This mixture may be strained to remove the saunf granules. Add sugar to the saunf water and boil till you get a thick syrup. Crush the green cardamoms (discard the peel and use only the grains) and add them to the concentrate. Serve mixed with chilled water to taste.
The next Sharbat Making workshops will be held on 8 and 29 May, noon-5pm. The registration fee is Rs 1,200 per person. For details, contact 011-41764054.