In the outermost reaches of southwestern India, the soundtrack of summer has a deeper bass and a heavier beat than the rest of the year. The sun shines down with all its might and glory, and we reach for cool summer drinks.
The best thirst quencher is of, course, water; nothing hydrates like water. Growing up in southern India, we drank water stored in unglazed earthen pots, which cooled the water amazingly well. Sometimes, the water was delicately flavored with the fragrance of cleaned roots of raamacham (Chrysopogon zizanioids), a perennial grass native to India.
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When it comes to summer drinks, the top five south Indian favorites are tangy sambharam with a hint of chili, sweet paanakam flavored with ginger and cardamom, homemade lemonade, freshly squeezed sugarcane juice and fresh green coconuts filled with sweet coconut water. Living in Texas, the 100 degree-plus summer temperatures often make me crave these refreshingly cool libations. Luckily, sambharam and paanakam are easy to prepare with a few readily available ingredients.
When the thermometer hits triple digits, do you automatically reach for a soda? The next time you are tempted to drink a soda, read the label. They are loaded with sugars and artificial food colors and flavors. When you are planning a summer gathering, try one of these delicious summer drinks from India.
Summertime conjures up memories of big pots of sambharam, home-churned buttermilk spiced with green chilies, fresh ginger, curry leaves, lemon leaves and coriander leaves, kept in the open veranda of my ancestral home. The sight of this big pot was a welcome sign to those who walked by to stop and get a glass of this cool refreshing summer drink.
Buttermilk is the liquid left behind after churning fermented milk to make butter. Before the widespread industrialization of the dairy industry, most butter in India was made by mixing boiled and cooled milk with yogurt culture and allowing it to sit overnight to ferment. During those unrefrigerated hours, the added yogurt culture caused the microorganisms in the milk to sour slightly, taking on a nutty tanginess. This fermented milk was then churned to separate the butter from the buttermilk. Drinking tangy buttermilk helps to lower the body temperature and keeps the body cool and revitalized. Salty, tangy and spicy, this drink is a sure energy booster.
Back home, sambharam is prepared with slightly sour buttermilk. Homemade yogurt and buttermilk always taste fresher. They do not contain any thickeners or preservatives. Plain yogurt also makes good sambharam.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 12 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 cups plain yogurt or 3 cups buttermilk
Salt to taste
4 cups ice-cold water
1 or 2 fresh green chilies (serrano or Thai) (less for a milder taste)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime leaves, thinly sliced (if available)
½ cup fresh curry leaves
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
2 teaspoons very finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
1. Combine the yogurt, salt and water in a blender, and mix well. If using buttermilk, reduce the quantity of water.
2. Pour into a pitcher.
3. Cut the green chilies lengthwise and then into thin strips. (If you prefer the drink mild, reduce or eliminate the green chilies.)
4. Stir in the green chilies, lime or lemon leaves, curry leaves and grated ginger.
5. Garnish with finely chopped cilantro leaves. Usually this drink is not strained; it is served with all the added ingredients. If you prefer, refrigerate it for an hour and strain before serving.
Another cool drink perfect for the scorching heat of August is paanakam. This ginger and cardamom-flavored drink is sweetened with jaggery (Indian unrefined brown sugar), known for its digestive and cooling properties. Paanakam is usually served as an offering to the gods during Hindu religious rituals and festivities. Although considered a celestial favorite, it is also a refreshing, cool drink on a hot summer day anywhere in the world. Some traditional recipes include flavorings such as sandalwood and the fragrant root raamacham. It tastes quite delicious even when these ingredients are substituted with crushed cardamom. It is also very easy to make. Use as much jaggery and spices as your prefer. For me, the perfect Paanakam is one that has a kick of ginger and a hint of cardamom.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1¼ cups jaggery or brown sugar
1 pitcher cold water
1 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon ginger powder
3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
1. Heat the jaggery/ brown sugar and one cup of water till the sugar is dissolved.
2. After it has cooled down, pour into the cold water and stir well.
3. If using jaggery, strain the liquid through a fine-meshed strainer.
4. Sprinkle cardamom powder and ginger powder. Add lemon juice and stir well.
5. Chill in the refrigerator. Serve over crushed ice cubes for a cool, refreshing drink.
Main photo: Sambharam and paanakam make for cool summer drinks. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran