The Indian subcontinent has been drinking Rooh Afza for over a century. First produced in Delhi in 1906, the rose-flavoured syrup is a chaotic cocktail of grape, watermelon, orange, carrot, lotus, spinach, lilies, mint, and a distillate of damask roses. It is traditionally served with milk and ice, but can also be mixed with lime and ice-water for a refreshing mocktail. Many South Asian desserts are flavoured with Rooh Afza, including kheer (a milky rice pudding) and falooda, which takes on a rose-coloured tint when its vermicelli and basil seeds are soaked overnight in Rooh Afza.
Rooh Afza was always too pungent for my liking, but it made appearances throughout my childhood. The luminous red bottle was there during Ramadan and at the family dinners hosted by my grandmother, when vast food spreads would be laid out on the floor like edible ornaments.
The rose syrup is also responsible for one of the most traumatic drinking experiences of my early teens.
It was my first trip to Pakistan and we were visiting an aunt who lived in the northern city of Attock. She greeted my mother and I in Pukhto at the door. “Pakhayr,” she cried, her arms thrown wide and scarf billowing behind her like a cape as we stepped into the courtyard. In Pakistan, the honour of the guest is so sacred that it is a cardinal sin if they do not leave your home with a stomach bulging like Henry VIII. And so, a few minutes later, Aunty bolted off to the kitchen to fulfil her hosting duties, reappearing with two steel cups and a jug balanced on a matching steel tray.
Beaming with a Cheshire-cat grin, she entreated me to drink. “Waakhla zamaa bacche,” she said—“Take it, my child.” I peered cautiously into the cup. The unmistakable rouge of Rooh Afza glared back at me, punctuated by ice and fresh mint. With my aunt’s expectant eyes on me, I pretended to sip the perfumed poison through tightly pursed lips. When she was satisfied that her young guest was drinking, she returned to the kitchen for fresh biscuits.
Were it not for my mother bulging her eyeballs as a way of silently scolding me, I would have flung the Rooh Afza into a nearby rose bush. (Refusing to eat is almost as egregious as starving your guest.) I pinched my nose and downed the contents of the cup faster than you could say “Rooh Afza shot.” My olfactory senses were plunged into a rose-scented hell that tasted as though I had drunk my grandmother’s attar, a strongly perfumed oil that belongs on threadbare prayer mats and the cotton scarves of elderly female relatives.
A decade on from swearing never to touch Rooh Afza again, and my taste buds have had an inexplicable change of heart.
On a visit to Bradford’s MyLahore restaurant not long ago, I ordered a Rooh Afza falooda on a whim. It arrived in a sundae glass, a mound of kulfi floating in a rosy milk bath. Its scent was sweet but not sickly, velvety and familiar—like the embrace of a long-lost friend. As it melted, the syrup infused the ice cream with an attractive pink ombre effect. “What Rooh Afza-loving demon has possessed me?” I thought as I spooned the dessert ravenously into my mouth, right down to the last crimson drop.
Shortly after this, my new-found craving for Rooh Afza followed me on a trip to New York. A friend and I drove around Coney Island at midnight, searching high and low for the crimson ambrosia mixed with falooda. Only last night, I considered mixing Rooh Afza with almond milk. The traditionalist within pushed me to go for a dash of Rooh Afza and ice-cold cow’s milk—the classic Rooh Afza beverage that needs no alterations. How could I ever have doubted this red-hued elixir?
As a born-again Rooh Afza fan, it wasn’t long before I became curious about the drink’s origins. The story begins in 1906, when herbalist Hakeem Hafiz Abdul Majeed formulated a rose syrup and began selling it on the streets of Delhi. The simple herbal tonic soon became a favoured summer refreshment, as customers found rose to have a cooling effect against the arid heat of Indian summers.
For four decades, Rooh Afza quenched the subcontinent, until production halted following Partition in 1947. India was torn apart by the Radcliffe Line, sparking one of the largest mass migrations in history and violence that saw two million lose their lives. Abdul-Majeed had by now passed away, but left two sons—who now found themselves on either side of the newly created border between India and Pakistan—to continue the business. They eventually reopened the Rooh Afza factory in India, as well as a new production site in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh following its independence in 1971.
In more recent years, the 100-year-old syrup has faced competition from Western beverage brands like Coca-Cola, prompting manufacturers Hamard to pursue advertising campaigns aimed at young consumers, and experiment with ready-to-serve fruit fusions and coffee flavours. In her 2017 novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Indian author Arundhati Roy lamented, “the Elixir of the Soul was, like most things in the world, trumped by Coca Cola.”
But unlike Pepsi or Diet Coke, Rooh Afza is more than just a drink. It’s the unlikely witness to the bloody birth of three nations. The social glue that unites worshippers in Pakistan praying at the grave sides of Sufi saints and crowds gathered outside Indian Gurdwaras celebrating the birthday of revered Gurus. From London to Lahore, families gather around tables to consume it by the jug-load.
It’s almost like the the old herbal doctors infused Rooh Afza with a magic that allows its drinkers to transcend borders, religion, and even time itself. When one family sits down to break their Ramadan fast with dates and water—and of course, a jug of ice-cold Rooh Afza—the generations that came before sit with them too. They watch them fall into the crimson embrace of Rooh Afza, just as they did on the streets of Delhi, all those years ago.