Thandai – just one word in India evokes so many different feelings, emotions and memories.
Cool, because it is a drink made of spiced, flavoured cold milk. Delicious, because a plethora of aromatics and good bits and bobs blend beautifully to impart a lovely taste and a heady aroma. Festive, because the Thandai is usually associated with special occasions like Holi, the festival of colours, and Shiv Ratri, the celebration of Lord Shiva. And memorable, because the milk-based drink spiked with bhang (a hand-ground paste of the buds and leaves of the cannabis plant) is perhaps the only socially permissible community drink consumed en masse, and makes for treasured stories of hilarious intoxication in families and friend circles.
A riot of various aromas comes together to create the unique flavour of the Thandai. Rose, poppy seeds, pepper, saffron, screw pine, cardamom, cinnamon, almonds and pistachio, sometimes mace, aniseed, nutmeg and a bunch of other seeds and nuts get added into thick cold milk to make it a luxuriously rich drink that is often a meal by itself. Don’t be surprised if you have to actually chew the drink before gulping down its cool freshness!
It is this unique flavour combination that has got the feverishly creative new age chefs and mixologists of the country thinking up a profusion of new dishes, flavour pairings and even cutting edge cocktails at the hipster bars and lounges of the top cities. Thandai has definitely found a new swagger!
An easy extension of this flavour is ice creams, and so many of the city’s ice cream parlours like Natural’s, Gokul, Apsara etc. have come up with Thandai-flavoured ice cream, which is being scooped off by the dozen to the thirsty and hot Mumbai-ites, scorched by a blazing summer sun. Papacream Ice cream Parlour in Churchgate is also rolling out nitrogen-infused scoops of the Thandai flavour, to the joy of little (and big!) kids enjoying the theatre of smoke and clouds from tubes and barrels.
Thandai Panna Cotta
But some restaurants like Spice Klub in Lower Parel and Food Trek in Versova have taken it a step further in making Thandai Mousse, which is something like the snobbish cousin of the humble Kulfi to end your meal with. And then there is Spare Kitchen in Juhu which has acquired quite the fan following for its Thandai Panna Cotta, the perfectly wobbly and creamy Italian dessert with a decidedly Indian twist.
But perhaps the most intriguing of all Thandai dishes is the amuse bouche served at Masala Library, the fine dining restaurant from the stables of Zorawar Kalra‘s Massive Restaurants. A curious little globe floating in a bath of chilled, bright yellow milk is served to you right at the start to clean your palate. As you pop the Thandai globe in your mouth, it bursts delightfully (breaking free from its ‘spherification’ made with the use of molecular gastronomy techniques) giving you an explosion of freshness and taste that perks you up for all the flavourful Indian dishes to follow.
The Bollywood Bhaang cocktail
And then there is another spectrum altogether, that of molecular cocktails, a stellar example of which is the Bollywood Bhang, a quirky vodka-based cocktail at Masala Bar, another blockbuster presentation by Zorawar and team. This place has its own ‘mixology lab’ and is easily the best place in the city, no, make it the country, to be seen sipping a suave, sundowner cocktail against the spectacular backdrop of a fiery setting sun and the expansive Arabian Sea. Like all their signature cocktails, the Bollywood Bhang, infused with Basil smoke and served in a glass skull, also comes with a cute story that is best recounted by ace in-house mixologist Arjun Chaudhary.
This Thandai shop in Lucknow called Raja ki Thandai is perhaps the oldest in the country – nearly 150 years
The 4th generation owners still sell only 2 kinds of Thandai – the plain yellow one and the greenish bhang one
But hang on, the excitement doesn’t stop there! Last week at an exceptionally high-energy ‘dance-off’ cocktail mixing session at Bombay Canteen, Dean Callan, Global Brand Ambassador of Monkey Shoulder, one of the tastiest and finest whiskeys in the market today, put together a Thandai-based whiskey cocktail that was as heady as it was lip-smackingly delicious.
Dean Callan with his new babies, the Thandai-Whiskey cocktails
Dean is frantically looking for a good name for this baby and planning to quietly sneak it into his mind-blowing repertoire of snazzy cocktails back in London. Given their love for almost everything Indian, the swish Londoners are in for a happy surprise real soon!
A high-energy Holi scene from Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani
From large brass glasses sloshing into enormous casks of freshly made Thandai, not drunk but thrown down the gullet and shirt-front of hero and heroine alike, in colourful song and dance sequences in Bollywood villages settings, to glinting Martini glasses in the hands of spiffily-dressed nightclubbers in London’s Shoreditch, and onwards to the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower and vertiginous skyscrapers of Manhattan. Hmm, quite the journey for a humble drink to arrive on the world stage, what say?!