As any grandmother will tell you, your body does not need an ice cold soda can to cool it down when you walk in from the summer’s scorching heat. Centuries before refrigeration found its way into our lives (a majority of Indian homes still do not have access to this luxury), people have had ways of protecting their metabolism from the effects of dehydrating summers.
Every part of India has its traditional cool drink to beat the heat. In Goa, it is kokum juice, while in Uttar Pradesh it is khus and nimbu paani (fresh lemonade). Khus or vetiver is also used in the straw mats that are strung outside doors and windows to keep homes cool, emitting an earthy fragrance when splashed with water. Mint, or pudina, grows profusely in the summer and is used not only to add flavour to fruit juices but also for its cooling properties. Rose extract, or gulkhand, also cools the system and aids digestion in the hot summer months, and is taken by itself or with pan. Thandai (which literally means ‘coolant’), a mixture of almonds, melon seeds, saffron, rose petals, fennel and cardamom, is also used in milk or as a sherbet. Jal Jeera, a favourite in North India, is a spicy mixture of cumin powder, rock salt, pepper, and sometimes, dry mango powder. It used both as a digestive and a coolant. Kanji, a Kashmiri drink made of turnips, is perhaps an acquired taste but those who have grown up on it would swear by its remarkable properties.
In Tamil Nadu, ‘panakam’, jaggery water flavoured with cardamom and dry ginger powder, heralds the start of summer. Raw mangoes are used to make ‘kairi panna’, a sweet-sour drink that is a favourite across the country, flavoured variously with elaichi, black salt and jaggery. ‘Sabja’ or ‘balanga’ seeds (sweet basil) are found in local markets and used to make summer staples – homes would have whole clay pots of cool water with these seeds soaked in them, to which a twist of lime, rose syrup or a sprig of mint is added for flavour. Sweet basil seeds are also used to cure dyspepsia and form a base for rooh afza, a popular summer drink said to have been brought to India by the Persians. And of course there is the ever popular lassi and its variants – chaachch in the west, neer moru or salla in the South – and enjoyed both sweet and salted!