Get Your Juices Flowing With 5 Unconventional Homegrown Beverages

These Indian coolers are revered in Ayurveda for their health benefits.
These Indian coolers are revered in Ayurveda for their health benefits.L:, R: Genani Manoj (on X)

As old as the writings of Kālidāsa, restorative quenchers like aam panna and kokum sharbat have been around to wage sweet battles with the tropical sun in India, served to weary travellers and Mughal courtiers alike. Barmy afternoons of street hawkers crying “kaale kaale phalse,” children tousling branches for low hanging bel or jamun fruits and homemade concoctions like chincheche sharbat (gleaned from tamarinds) are irrevocably embedded in our flavour vocabulary. Now christened as superfoods, these wild berries rich in antioxidants are finding social currency in gourmet kitchens and cocktail bars, owing to their astringent versatility. Recently, one of our leading mixologists Nitin Tewari — who goes by Mr. BarTrender on Instagram) — dabbled in replacing lemon with amla (Indian gooseberry) for an indigenous riff on the classic Tom Collins.

In the alternative medicine of Ayurveda, there is an emphatic focus on detoxification (sodhana), inducting sharbat or coolers within our daily diet to cure dehydration and fatigue during the summer. Nevertheless some of them are made from very curious ingredients that may not, on the surface, seem refreshing but are surprisingly good at getting your juices flowing.

I. Pānakaṃ

A grandmother’s recipe passed down for generations, traditionally served at temples during Ram Navami and other spring festivals in South India, Pānakaṃ is a recharging blend of black pepper with palm sugar (or ‘jaggery’) and lemon water that beats any lemonade stand you set up when you were ten years old.

Spiked by ginger powder and cardamom, the cordial has now come to represent a whole range of draughts prepared with raw mangoes and even tinted with camphor that date all the way back to the Paka Darpana of Nala, the ancient cookbook written by King Nala more than 8000 years ago. But the pānakaṃ poured into the lord’s mouth at the Mangalagiri temple in Andhra Pradesh is said to even cool down the volcano that it’s allegedly sitting on. So much for a sales pitch on a lemonade.

II. Falsa Sharbat

The deep purple stone fruits winking in the foliage, picked by steady hands and amassed atop food carts at street markets have actually very little flesh but macerating them can elicit a delightful flamingo colour when strained with water. All you have to do is just add black salt and sugar before serving with ice. Pink salt to season and maybe a tincture of beet juice will pass the taste test as well. Hardy and resilient, the Grewia asiatica plant can yield fruit for nearly 30 years, proving to be an exceptional source of vitamin C and fibre. And latest research in brain health has concurred that the juice from the berries can also soothe those with anxiety. I will take home a tankard of this, thank you.

III. Ragi Ambli

Definitely up there among the things I didn’t know you can make a drink out of, the flour of finger millet or ragi is the core element for a low-calorie yet highly nutritious potion made with buttermilk and curry leaves. Onion, asafoetida and cumin are also added to this beverage, aiding with digestion but can be whisked with jaggery and cardamom to make it taste less like a curry. Roasting the flour for a minute before you begin stirring and adding other ingredients can give it a smoky undertone. Not exactly a sharbat by my definition, ragi ambli is versatile and can be served as a porridge or a malt depending on personal preference, but after a mid-day meal in Karnataka it settles really well in your stomach.

IV. Nannari

Back to the more sharbat end of the spectrum, India’s answer to the root beer, Nannari is a syrup extracted from the mysterious yet commonplace sarsaparilla roots growing profusely all over the upper Gangetic plain like a weed. The concentrate can be mixed with cold soda water, pepper, lemon juice and topped with chipped ice. With subtle notes of vanilla and woody fragrance, the herb is more popular in South India, the word ‘nannari’ itself is the Tamil name for the plant called ananthamool in Hindi.

Through the lens of Ayurveda, sarsaparilla is supposed to be a blood purifier and amazingly enough, one of the best remedies for a urinary infection. Now you know what you can start slurping down after a dip in the public swimming pool.

V. Piyush

Another strong contender for one of the weirdest, if not the richest, Indian summer drinks out there. Piyush was, apparently, first invented by the Tambe family that owned an eponymous eatery called Tambe Arogya Bhavan near Dadar kabutar khana.

A creamy commingling of Shrikhand (thick yoghurt based dessert) and buttermilk, Piyush has a tinge of cardamom and nutmeg in it, sliding down the throat in a luscious cascade of treacly goodness. The name of the beverage itself means an ambrosia that makes you immortal. This can be certainly said of its legacy, because even though the Tambe kitchen shut down in 2017, their creation continues to be popular in the Maharashtrian and Gujarati cuisine of western India.