Food by VICE

Everything Delhi Locals Drink to Keep Cool During Summer

When the temperature soars, residents of the Indian capital turn to drink. Not booze, but rainbow-colored potions spiked with noodles, curry-flavored fruit juices, and soured milk.

by Rebecca Hobson
Jun 21 2016, 12:00pm

It's bonkers hot in Delhi—10 AM and already 34 degrees Celsius.

And when the temperature soars, the locals turn to drink. Not booze, but rainbow-coloured potions spiked with noodles, curry-flavoured fruit juices, and soured milk.

Every street corner has its own wallah (vendor) expertly pressing juices, filling soda bottles, and crushing ice, while restaurants serve seasonal favourites like aam ka panna, a swampy looking drink made from raw mangoes and masala.

It's in search of these exotic and—most importantly—cooling drinks that I find myself standing a few yards from one of Delhi's busiest roads, next to a large chest freezer surrounded by dusty tricycles and plastic cars.

Ranjan and his lassie

Ranjan enjoys a cooling lassi at a roadside vendor in Delhi. All photos by the author.

There's no AC, no door, and no shop frontage—just a thousand car horns screaming blue murder behind me. Yet apparently, in this unassuming "toy-shop-cum-dairy," one finds the best buffalo chaas (buttermilk) and lassi around.

Or at least that's what my friend, a sixty-something Delhiite and restaurateur, told me.

Now, watching one customer proudly down his drink, I ask what the deal is.

"I've been coming here for 17 or 18 years, it is the ultimate lassi," says Ranjan, who, it transpires, commutes daily from the neighbouring state of Haryana. "It cools me down when I'm very hot, that's why we have this lassi."

Chaas in the Nanak Dairy'

Chaas, a drink made with raw buttermilk.

I opt for the chaas to cool me down instead. The flavour of raw buttermilk is difficult to describe to the uninitiated, and this one is particularly pungent and sour. It tastes a bit like how a ripe Époisse smells, with a handful of fermenting mushrooms thrown in for added depth. I manage half a cup.

Still hot and thirsty, I head for a nearby shikanji stand. Also known as nimbu pani, shikanji is Delhi's most common roadside drink, and is essentially lime and soda mixed with salt or sugar.

A jal jeera stand

A jal jeera stand.

Today's shikanji-wallah is serving jeera shikanji, which means he adds cumin, homemade chaat masala, and kala namak—a black salt that looks suspiciously like the kind of mystery drug found at the end of a party.

At the stall, I meet Virender. He has just had a minor motorbike accident and is taking a breather.

"I drink this when I feel weak, it makes me feel much stronger," he says. "The lemon flavour and salt is good."

He's right, it's really good. The salty citrus mix is surprisingly thirst-quenching and I down my cup in one.

Jal jeera 2

Jeera shikanji, made with cumin, homemade chaat masala, and kala namak.

With a belly full of buffalo milk, suspicious salt, and lemon, I decide it's the perfect time to track down some bael ka paani—a drink made from pressed bael (wood apple).

At the bael stand, I meet Sol. This is his favourite thing to drink in the heat because, he says, it's good for the stomach. It also reminds him of his home in Assam where his wife and children live.

"In Assam, I have bael trees in my garden and I make the drink myself," he tells me. "It's very, very good for you."

A bael stand

A bael stand, serving drinks made with wood apple.

I'm sure it is, but lunchtime is approaching and I realise it's time for something that costs more than 20 rupees (around 20p) a cup and offers a bit more sustenance.

So I head north to Old Delhi, to Giani's di Hatti: a 60-year-old dessert parlour and home to the much-loved beverage rabri falooda.

A couple sharing a rabri falooda

A couple sharing a falooda, a kind of ice cream made with boiled milk, cream, sugar, almonds, and cardamom.

There are many different takes on falooda, Giani's is a mixture of the standard vermicelli (that's the falooda) and rabri, a kind of ice cream made from boiled milk, cream, sugar, almonds, and cardamom, topped with crushed ice and sugar syrup.

Despite the parlour's location in the heart of the busy Chandni Chowk market, I find it easily thanks to the sheer number of people (almost entirely adults) milling around on the pavement, eagerly devouring what is essentially India's take on an ice cream sundae.

Rabri falooda 2

A street vendor serving falooda in Old Delhi.

It's a bizarre and heart-warming sight.

I ask Jaishree, one of a family of seven sharing a glass, why falooda is so popular.

"You must try it!" she says, grinning, no doubt in the grip of a sugar high. "We come from Rajasthan but we always stop here when we come to Delhi, it's the best there is."

Rabri falooda

Glasses of fresh falooda.

After almost finishing my own glass of the stuff—it's incredibly filling and sweet—I decide to walk it off by heading through the madness of Chandni Chowk towards Red Fort.

Along the way, I come across a stand serving jal jeera—another water, cumin, lime concoction, but this one comes with mint and floating puffed rice. As much as I want to in the name of research, I can't quite bring myself to drink one (plus, I'm not sure if the water is filtered), so I keep walking until I reach the Red Fort.

A man cools down with a rabri falooda

Customers cooling down with falooda in Old Delhi's Chandni Chowk market.

It's there, amid a sprinkling of sweaty tourists braving the heat, that I find a stand serving sharbat roohafza: a luminous pink, rose-flavoured cordial I've heard about but never tried.

I order one and tentatively take a sip—much to the bemusement of a small audience of young men that has suddenly sprung up from nowhere. It's not what I expected at all. Yes, it tastes like sweet synthetic rose, but it also has an aftershave-like flavour. It tastes how men smell.

Sharbat roohafza, a type of rose-flavoured cordial.

Which isn't necessarily bad, just a little odd.

It's now mid-afternoon and I still haven't had a kala khatta chuski, which a kind of slush puppy and ice lolly rolled into one. You find street stands serving it throughout India all summer long, a combination of kala khatta—a sweet and tangy sherbet made from a black plum called jamun—and shaved iced.

I head to the trendy neighbourhood of Hauz Khas, hoping to find some hipsters braving the heat and enjoying chuski. After ten minutes or so, I meet Ashish and Nupur, two 20-year-old students from Delhi shooting a music video for a university assignment.

A kala khatta stand

I ask them about what they're drinking.

"As you can see, it's very hot nowadays so you need something refreshing for your body," says Nupur. "I need something to cool me down. This is a sweet kala khatta flavour, but it comes in different types. It can be salty too."

Niha and Vandana

Students Niha and Vandana enjoy kala khatta chuski, a kind of slush puppy and ice lolly rolled into one.

A few yards down down the road at another stand, I meet Neha and Vandana, two students from Jaipur visiting Delhi.

"Chuski is a street food," they tell me. "It's relieving and refreshing, you must try it. In these hot summers you need these. It's cheap also. Better and cheap."

Well in that case, I'll take two.

Editor's note: Not all of Delhi's street food stalls use filtered water in their drinks. To avoid falling victim to Delhi Belly, check with your vendor first.