On my first trip to the Indian state of Gujarat, I learned to spot a soda vendor from a mile away. I could see one past the hoards of pedestrians in brightly colored saris, over the street cows walking fearlessly into oncoming traffic, beyond the vendors selling sticky sweet orange jalebi. I tuned out the endless bleating of car horns until I found a small cart with many bottles and a bowlful of lemons and limes. The very sight would make me start drooling like one of Pavlov’s dogs, because I knew what magic was waiting for me: nimbu masala soda, a bubbly, salty-sweet lime drink enhanced with a pungent, spicy masala (a mix of Indian spices).
I’m a flavor junkie. My favorite things to eat and drink punch me with strong flavors (hello, pickle brine, soy sauce, chamoy), so masala soda was right up my alley. It’s a refreshing, slightly funky drink that Indians, especially in the North, use to cool off or settle their stomachs after a long meal. The funk comes from kala namak (or black salt), which has a slight sulfury flavor, and is an ingredient in jal jeera, the minty masala mix I use in my recipe. The most common is nimbu (lemon or lime), but most street vendors have rows upon rows of bottles filled with flavored concentrated syrups ranging from Indian fruits (dark purple mangosteen, lychee, mango) to more British/western variations (orange, black currant), to American versions (masala Coke and Sprite). I quickly became a soda fiend, stopping at every street vendor for freshly made cups and every shop for bottled versions like 7-Up Nimbooz Masala soda (which still comes in a glass bottle, swoon).
Once home in California, I got to work recipe testing. I knew the basics from watching street vendors: lime or lemon juice, simple syrup, a spice blend (typically jal jeera masala or chaat masala), powdered kala namak, and club soda. Masala recipes in India vary so much, chaat masala and jal jeera masala could be similar or very different based on who made it. Both typically contain cumin, ginger, powdered kala namak, rock salt, a sour fruit powder like tamarind or amchur (sour mango), and chili pepper. Jal jeera often has mint, which I think brightens the drink, so that’s what I used. I quickly learned to ditch the extra kala namak, because too much made the soda have a strong, hard-boiled egg flavor. I could tell I hit the right proportions when a single sip instantly transported me back to the soda vendor in noisy, colorful India, who handed me that first foamy cup.
My favorite part about this recipe is it’s versatility. It’s easy to adjust the simple syrup for a sweeter or a more salty drink, and sometimes I replace it with my favorite flavored syrup, like blackberry or mango (but I cut the lime/lemon juice in half, because otherwise, the flavor takes over the syrup). Torani sells some great syrups, and I’ve also made my own with seasonal fruit (similar to this strawberry syrup). Shrubs also work well, like a peach ginger one I made recently. I’ve also used these measurements for masala and just added it to 6 oz. of my favorite soda, like ginger beer or Mexican Coke, occasionally with a bit of lime or lemon juice to brighten it up.
One of my favorite variations is a blackcurrant masala soda, which is tart, yet sweet and rich, similar to the kokum masala soda I had in Gujarat. I found a bottle of Ribena concentrate (a British blackcurrant syrup) at my local Indian grocery, but any non-alcoholic concentrated flavored syrup will do. Just cut the lime down to 1 tablespoon and sub in your flavored syrup for the simple syrup. I felt like the flavors of a nimbu masala soda would work well with the sweet, slightly spicy flavors in whiskey, so I decided to make a cocktail out of it by adding a shot of mixing whiskey and two dashes of Angostura bitters to the basic nimbu masala soda recipe. I like Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon because it’s a bit sweeter and doesn’t compete with the spices in the masala, and the bitters give a slightly herbal quality that plays well with the mint.
India is a country where people love to customize the flavors of every dish and drink, so feel free to get creative. Hold back on the kala namak, punch up the chili flavor, or puree fresh cilantro, mint or ginger into the soda, there is no wrong way to make it. Just be sure to hold your glass up and cheers the country that invented this addictive drink.
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons simple syrup
- 4 ounces chilled club soda
- 1/2 teaspoon jal jeera masala
- 1 dash kosher salt
- 1 1/2 ounces Whiskey (optional)
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters (optional)
- 1 tablespoon Any flavored syrup (optional)
What flavors are you keen to experiment with? Let us know in the comments!