Aug - 2023

Across South Asia, this sweet drink is synonymous with summertime refreshment

DELHI — On a hot, humid afternoon in Old Delhi, Abdul Wahid hacks at a big block of ice with a knife. The ice sits in a large pool of a deep, ruby-red liquid. As chunks break off, Wahid pours the icy liquid into plastic glasses and serves it up to eager customers. A Hindi ad blaring from a speaker calls the drink "the life and pride of the summers."

The drink is cool and refreshing, with sweet, floral notes. It's called Rooh Afza, Urdu for "soul rejuvenator," and it has been South Asia's go-to summer beverage for over a century.

Sold as a thick, red syrup, Rooh Afza — billed as "the summer drink of the East" — is generally diluted with water or milk and lends itself well to desserts. In Delhi, where it originated, families stock their refrigerators with bottles of Rooh Afza all summer long. It's also a staple during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when faithful break their dawn-to-dusk fast with Rooh Afza and dates.

"The sound of the summer birds and the taste of Rooh Afza, it just transports me," says Delhi-based food critic Marryam H. Reshii. She has enjoyed the drink since the 1960s. "You go to someone's house and along will come a tray with an elderly maid serving you these tall glasses, she'll give you Rooh Afza in that — and it just takes you back, it's like entering into another world."

Originally, Rooh Afza was intended as a medicinal preparation to beat the heat. In 1907, Hakeem Hafeez Abdul Majeed, a unani or traditional medicine practitioner in Delhi, came up with a formula to alleviate the symptoms of extreme heat.

His concoction included a variety of herbs like mint, rose petals and khas, a type of fragrant grass, that would help cool the body down. But people liked the taste so much that bottles of the red syrup kept flying off the shelves of his small shop, called Hamdard Laboratories.