On a hot June afternoon, as I walked into Narendra Bhawan, a luxury hotel in Bikaner, I was handed a glass of one of the most delicate and refreshing drinks I had tasted in a long time. The sharbat had strong sweet notes, tempered with lime juice. I tried to guess the ingredients, but in vain. After I gave up, I was informed that it was made of jasmine flowers, or bela, as they are known in Hindi.
Later that evening, I met Vidhan Tanwar, who has been making the drink since he was a child. Tanwar runs Chunnilal Tanwar Sharbat Wale, a no-frills shop that was started by his father Chunnilal, with his mother making the sharbats at home. Bela sharbat is one of their most popular drinks, though there are more than a dozen varieties on the shop’s menu. These include khus (vetiver), chandan (sandalwood), saunf (fennel), laung (clove) and kewra (pandanus). Mixed with water and served in a kulhad (clay cup), the drinks are refreshing and perfect for Rajasthan’s blistering summers.
“People used to drink these sharbats often,” said Tanwar. “Now the demand is decreasing.” He blames the decline on the popularity of soft drinks and packaged fruit juices among youngsters.
If these sharbats have to revived, it is important to adapt them to our current lifestyle. Sharbats can work brilliantly in desserts, but I feel they are really made for cocktails. And what better time than Diwali to add an Indian flavour to the party.
Bela basil gimlet
30ml bela sharbat
½ tsp ginger juice
1 tsp lemon juice
60 ml gin
100 ml tonic
Basil leaves for garnish
Ice cubes as needed
Add bela, ginger juice, lemon juice, gin, tonic and ice cubes in a cocktail shaker.
Shake for 1-2 minutes and pour in a glass having few cubes of ice.
Indigenisation of sharbat
The word sharbat – meaning a drink of sugar and water – has its origins in Arabic. It was introduced in India by the Mughals in the 16th century and was soon indigenised. For flavouring, people began adding ingredients that were locally available: in the dry lands of Rajasthan, for instance, spices like saunf and clove were popular. But, as repertoires expanded, flowers sourced from various parts of the country were used.
It’s not just the city of Bikaner that is famous for sharbats. A variety of sharbats are found throughout the country, starting with the iconic Rooh Afza. Mixed with a glass of chilled water or had as rose milk, this classic summer sharbat was an inextricable part of life in India from the 1970s to the 1990s. With the addition of some sabja (basil seeds) and vermicelli, it would morph into India’s answer to Trifle Pudding.
Then there is thandai from the north-western region of India – with its sharp notes of almonds, fennel and poppy seeds, it is sometimes mixed with bhang (like on Holi). In the west and central parts of India, the tart kokum fruit is used to make kokum sharbat, a soothing summer drink. On the eastern flank, in Bihar and Odisha, sattu (roasted gram flour) is mixed with water and spices and consumed as a cooling sharbat to deal with the unbearable heat. It also doubles up as a cheap protein source.
The south has its own share of sharbats. For instance, the famous nannari, an herb with a strong woody flavour and aroma, is used to make a cooling drink. Nannari (Indian Sarsaparilla) is known for its medicinal properties and acts an excellent diuretic, a coolant that prevents sunstroke and purifies the blood. It is also one of the rare sharbats that is made with the root of a plant. Though it is very often just mixed with chilled water and had, one of the more fun ways to consume nannari is as Jigarthanda. Similar to falooda but flavoured with nannari and edible gum, Jigarthanda might be an acquired taste, but it has a cult following in the Chettinad region.
Though sharbats are largely made with flowers, spices, herbs and dried fruit, fresh fruits are used as ingredients as well. The bael (wood apple) ka sharbat is popular around the country and is made during the summers. Bael is considered sacred and offered to the Hindu god Shiva. It also has a wide range of health benefits.
Summer fruits like falsa (Grewia asiatica), raw mango and lemon are also used to make sharbats. However, these aren’t the concentrate kinds – they are usually made fresh. Panakkam, made in South India especially on Ram Navami, brings together the diverse flavours of lemon juice, jaggery, ginger, cardamom, black pepper and a touch of camphor to make one of the most refreshing summer beverages.
Rose Tequila Sangria
1 bottle white wine
100 ml tequila
60 ml lemon juice
100 ml rose sharbat
300 ml club soda
½ cup plums sliced
1 cup mixed berries
Mint leaves for garnish
Rose petals for garnish
Mix all the sangria ingredients in a large jug and mix gently.
Top with club soda and a garnish of mint leaves and rose petals just before serving.