Sherbets

This coming Saturday is Mint Lounge’s Summer Special issue.  I wrote a column on cooling summer drinks, which, I discovered is already up on the site.  So am posting it here.

  • Columns
  • Posted: Thu, Apr 5 2012. 8:12 PM IST
The cooling draught
There is no better summer drink that the traditional Indian sherbet from your childhood

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 When my Chinese room-mate got acne on her face, she ate a porridge made of green mung beans. Soaked mung beans are considered cooling foods in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). They support the yin earth and disperse yang heat. Indian Ayurveda, too, has its own theories of heating and cooling foods. Ripe yellow mangoes are considered heating. My grandmother always ate mangoes with some yogurt to balance the fruit’s intrinsic heating properties. The mango theory didn’t make sense to me, I told my Dad. Nature, after all, doesn’t make mistakes. If it bestowed a bounty of mangoes all through the summer months, the fruits had to be there for a reason: to cool us off. No, said my Dad. Mangoes were indeed heating fruits; and yes, nature didn’t make mistakes. The reason mangoes came to us in the summer was answered in a pithy Sanskrit saying, “Ushnam Ushnena Shamyati”, which is akin to the Latin “Similia Similibus Curantur”. Like cures like, in plain English. Heating fruits like mangoes help dispel the heat of summer.

Stirring up memories: Sherbets are the drinks of an Indian childhood. Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.

Stirring up memories: Sherbets are the drinks of an Indian childhood. Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.

Healing foods are a complicated business. Mangoes are heating but only the ripe ones. Green mangoes are cooling—witness their ubiquitous usage in summer sherbets, including the famous aam panna, which incidentally includes some cooling cardamom, should there be any residual heat in the mangoes. Yogurt is cooling and damp. Many elderly Indians will not eat yogurt at night because it causes kapha or mucus. A better option is buttermilk, particularly blended with heating spices such as ginger, pepper, curry leaves and asafoetida. This chhaas, or sambaaram as it is called in Kerala, is a soothing digestive. Sugar cane, which thrives in the summer, is heating, so you balance it with some cooling rock sugar or kalkandu.

Panakam is another drink that is served around this time of year. Made with jaggery, pepper, dried ginger and cardamom, it balances electrolytes and quenches thirst. The bael (Bengal quince) fruit is famously cooling. Starting now, bael sherbets will be sold in by-lanes all over India. The green fruits, about the size of a small football, will be stacked like a pyramid. The yellow insides will be scooped out, made into a pulp and served with spices and sugar.

Sandalwood is cooling; and chandan sherbet infused with rose or mograpetals is another visually arresting cooling drink. In my home, I am making a short-cut sherbet. I have submerged a stick of sandalwood in water and floated some mogra and rose petals on top. For good measure, I am preparing this concoction in a copper vessel. In two months, I expect that the fountain of youth will have found me. Either that, or my hair will turn yellow from all the sandalwood I am imbibing.

Are sherbets being overtaken by mocktails? Most restaurants serve mocktails but few include sherbets in their menu. Nimish Bhatia, regional executive chef (south), The Lalit Ashok Bangalore, serves sherbets at his Baluchi restaurant. “We have tukhmalanga sherbets made of those round seeds (called “sabja” in Mumbai) that are part offaloodas,” he says. “These are perceived to be thirst quenchers and coolants.” Other Baluchi sherbets are infused with hibiscus and rose flowers.

Before mocktails were marketed by hotels and restaurants, we all drank sherbet: made ofkokum, mango, screw pine or kewrakhus or vetiver, and sugar cane.

Raj Sethia, chef and CEO of Gangotree restaurant in Bangalore and Chennai, is a sherbet purist. He says that mixing a number of ingredients does not a sherbet make. Milk too is a no-no in the sherbet category, but forms the basis of the thandais that we all drink. “Anything that is an amalgam of many ingredients comes into the mocktail category,” says Sethia. “They are not sherbets.” He speaks effusively about the sherbets of his childhood—such as keri ka panna and bael sherbet—their history that began when the Mughals came to India, and how sherbets can trace their lineage and names back to Arabia and Turkey. But you know what? He is writing a book on mocktails—not sherbets. Mocktail seems to be the drink of today, and sherbet, a summer drink from yesteryear.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to summer drinks. The West reaches for instant quick fixes: ice creams, slushes, “soda” or fizzy drinks and chilled juices. The East is more convoluted. Most of our sherbets are made with three ingredients: fruits and flowers, spices, and herbs like mint. I posted a request for sherbet recipes on a Facebook page that I highly recommend called Foodies in Bangalore. The name is self-explanatory but the people populating it are from all over India. Within a couple of hours, I had a hundred responses. I found a lot of information on the Gourmet India forum, an online community, as well. The enthusiasm of the responses suggests to me that sherbets are the stuff of summer nostalgia. These are drinks that transport us to our childhood, when we came home to chilled juices and sherbets made of seasonal fruits and spices—red rhododendron in Himachal Pradesh; a delicate green aam panna in Rajasthan; spiced buttermilk in Gujarat and Kerala; red jil jil jigarthanda in Madurai, made of rose syrup and sarsaparilla; Rooh Afza and Rasna coolers all over India; chocolate-coloured panagam in the midst of south Indian weddings; kesar faloodasat Crawford Market in Mumbai along with the ubiquitous tender coconut water; bael panna in Lucknow; the prized Bengali kaancha-mitha mangopanna; and a variety of red watermelon-based sherbets in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. These are the drinks of an Indian childhood, along with sucking on chuskis and ripe tamarind fruits that grow so profusely on the roadside in south India. Climb up a mango tree, lean back on its branches, allow the wind to rustle your hair and suck on a ripe mango or tamarind fruit. Better yet, drink an imli (tamarind) sherbet, Bhojpuri barley satturagi kanji or fresh lime soda. Arrey, lace it with vodka, if you must.

Shoba Narayan is currently drinking green Brahmi sherbet.

Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns