Food History

There's So Much More to Indian Beverages Than Tea & Lassi

January  3, 2017

If you think that tea went from India to Britain—that the British got hooked in the seventeenth century and have been having tea parties ever since—you might be surprised to know that the opposite is true.

In Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham reveals that at “the beginning of the twentieth century, the majority of Indians did not know how to make a cup of tea and were reluctant to drink one.” (This was shocking to me, but as I thought more, I connected some dots. Many of the eldest members of my family don’t drink tea, as it was once a small act of rebellion against the British and their association with tea.)

It was the British, in fact, who brought tea to India in early nineteenth century in order to reduce their reliance on the Chinese market. And it was the British who decided that the climate of the east Indian state of Assam was suitable for tea. After many trial and error attempts to create a hybrid of the Chinese tea and Indian tea, it was finally realized that Indian tea was a quality product in itself. (To this day, Assam accounts for half of the tea produced in India and contributes about 17% to the world tea production.) By 1900, 50% of the demand from the tea-addicted British market was supplied by India.

Many of the eldest members of my family don’t drink tea, as it was once a small act of rebellion against the British.

Even then, tea remained an expensive and foreign habit for majority of Indians, consumed only by chosen group of city-bred, westernized Indians. But soon, the British realized that a huge, untapped market lay right in front of them, and, by 1945, after a groundbreaking marketing campaign in which roadside tea shops, railway stalls and widespread tea-making demonstrations, tea became the drink of the Indian masses. Today, India consumes 25% of the global tea production, nearly 90% of Indian households are regular tea-drinkers, and 74% of Indian adult population drinks tea regularly, according to a 2011 ASSOCHAM survey.

To this day, tea cuts across class, wealth, and social status, sold in glass cups by handcarts on the streets and at fancy afternoon high teas. Often, it’s sugary, milky, and the only breakfast (or instant energy source) for the underprivileged.

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While coffee, introduced to India by the Arabs and Persians, maintains a stronghold in Southern India, its tea that’s enjoyed at home. There is so much nuance and idiosyncrasy in tea preparation, that every family, every person, has his or her own technique: That’s the reason why despite its supremacy, tea bars and shops have not proliferated the way coffee shops in India have. Coffee, reserved for trendy coffee shops and bars, hasn’t made a dent in tea’s predominance, despite its rising popularity. In 2015, Indians drank 176.6 cups of tea per year compared to 16.6 cups of coffee.

As a non-tea drinker, I can often feel like I’m missing out on a part of Indian social currency.

Tea has such clout that it permeates the social consciousness. Days are ruined if the morning tea does not turn outper specific preference, and most of the time, tea is freshly made (the use of thermoses is rare) and constantly consumed throughout the day, from tea cups a quarter or a half the size of those common in the U.S.

My mother, who did not grow up drinking tea or coffee, is often called a “non-connoisseur” by the extended family. Apparently she misses out on the finer points of life because of the absence of tea in her life. And similarly, because I’ve never been a tea drinker, I’m usually the last person asked to prepare tea—I supposedly don’t “get” it. As a non-tea drinker, I can often feel like I’m missing out on a part of Indian social currency.

Madhur Jaffrey states in At Home with Madhur Jaffrey that “Indians do not really eat an appetizer course.” I will expand this statement to say that Indians do not really have a tradition of serving beverages apart from tea and coffee throughout the year, either. That is why visitors like my mother, who refuse tea when offered, are considered to stretch the unspoken rules of Indian hospitality and etiquette, and tend to be frowned upon.

But for a brief period every year, the tables turn. Although people do not stop drinking their morning tea or coffee even in 100° F temperatures, with the summer comes the arrival of other homemade beverages sold on the streets and served to guests. Handcarts come out in scores to sell sugar cane juice, coconut water, nimbu pani (Indian lemonade), jaljeera (literally “cumin water”), and lassi (Indian buttermilk), and homemakers keep these beverages ready in their refrigerators to consume and serve at a moment’s notice.

Visitors who refuse tea when offered are considered to stretch the unspoken rules of Indian hospitality and etiquette.

Thanks to the popularity of these homemade drinks and the increasing departure from sodas for health reasons in India, many are sold in packaged form—even global giants like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, and Cadbury have entered the market.

From front to back: jaljeera; nimbu pani (on tray); aam ki shikanji. Photo by James Ransom

But you can make them fairly easily at home, and because I am not a coffee or tea drinker, I make them throughout the year. The following three drinks are easy to make and easy to scale up: They’re refreshing as summer drinks in India, but they can also work as superb non-alcoholic, kid-friendly party drinks for the winter months, when we could use a jolt of fresh, bright flavors. I recommend you make all these drinks at least a few hours in advance.

Nimbu Pani

Literally translating to “lime water,” nimbu pani (otherwise known as Indian lemonade) provides instant energy and hydration in the sweltering, humid heat of India. Sold on handcarts decorated with pyramids and garlands of limes all over the country, nimbu pani replenishes salts lost through intense perspiration. Indian grandmothers also tout the immunity-boosting qualities of nimbu pani for pregnant women.

A word about limes and lemons in India: Both lime and lemon are used interchangeably in India and translate to the same word—“nimbu”—in the Indian national language, Hindi. Before coming to the U.S., I did not know the difference between lemons and limes. In India, the citrus that’s used for this drink is yellow (like lemons here in the U.S.), thin-skinned, and the size of a Key lime. In my cooking as well as for my nimbu pani, I prefer to use limes because of their less acidic and slightly sweeter taste.

Aam Ki Shikanji

April and May are mango months in India: Mangoes take over the culinary landscape—there are Alphonso mangoes, with the hand-extracted “ras” (loosely translated as pulp) that’s served as an entrée with roti; mango milkshakes to cool off the afternoons; cut-up mango pieces for snacks; mango pickles; mango murabba (relish);mango pappad;and this drink, aam ki shikanji.

Made out of raw, green mangoes, aam ki shikanji (also called “panha” or “panna)” is known for its heat-resistant properties. Come summer, my mother boiled or steamed raw mangoes, created concentrate from their pulp and sugar, and stored it in the refrigerator to last a few weeks. To serve, she just added cold water to a glass with 2 teaspoons of shikanji concentrate. I remember loving the sweet and tangy taste of this refreshing drink.


Jal means “water” in Indic languages and jeera means “cumin.” So jaljeera is “cumin water,” mixed with an assortment of flavor boosters like mint, black salt, black pepper, and tamarind and meant to shock your palate.

Jaljeera is said to have originated on the banks of holy river Ganges, where the jaljeera powder (that is, the dry ingredients of the mix) was ground on stone slabs and stored in clay pots. Jaljeera powder is available in Indian grocery stores, too—just add water and serve.

Often served as an appetizer drink in North India, jaljeera is said to induce appetite, cool down the body (an absolute necessity in the summer months), and aid digestion. Ayurveda, the ancient healing system of India, also espouses the health benefits of jaljeera. Generally sold in earthen pots on the streets, jaljeera is often served as a party and wedding drink before a meal and refilled throughout.

What's the freshest, brightest drink you make during winter months? Tell us in the comments below.

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  • Catherine Yu
    Catherine Yu
  • manisha.deshmukh
To some people's frustration, I like to talk about food before cooking, while cooking, while eating and of course after eating.


Catherine Y. February 5, 2017
This is really inspiring! will definitely have a go at some of the recipes you provided
manisha.deshmukh January 3, 2017
Excellent Article!!