Travel

Is This the Most Refreshing Drink in the World?

A love letter to Rooh Afza.

April  4, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

I’ll never forget my first taste of Rooh Afza, the "Summer Drink of the East,” a South Asian syrup that was a mainstay in our house growing up. It was as if something had turned on inside of me. I could only liken it to the first time ones tries cheese, or a first kiss. I never knew such a flavor could exist and that it could bring me such pleasure.

The two ingredients that give Rooh Afza its signature taste are rose water and kewra, which is also known as Screw Pine Essence. This name is a misnomer; I mistakenly believed for years in the existence of some type of floral pine tree, but kewra is actually the white flower of the pandanus plant. The leaves of this plant, called pandan, are a ubiquitous flavoring in many Southeast Asian desserts. The flower is a vital ingredient in many special-occasion dishes in South Asia, particularly those associated with Muslim communities.

Years ago in high school, while I was coming home from the bus stop, a woman stopped me on the street (she was walking a cocker spaniel).

“My daughter says you’re good at maths,” she told me. “Can you tutor my son?”

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“Also, we have a contender for Rooh Afza called Jam e Shirin (bowl of sweetness - loosely translated). They taste almost same but I think Jam e Shirin wins! ”
— Zainab
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Her son was known as “Shorty” in my neighborhood, which was home to a random mix of middle-class professionals and mischief kids from up north who were shipped down to Miami to stay with their abuelas. Among the neighborhood kids who would hang out by the local basketball court, Shorty was the youngest and shortest (which is how he got his name). He wore baggy pants and designer polo shirts. His sister gelled her hair and sported hoop earrings and dark lipliner. They assimilated into the Latinesque urban aesthetic that was prevalent in Miami at the time. To all intents and purposes, they could’ve passed for Latinos.

But Shorty’s family was from Pakistan. His mother, who spoke with a noticeable Urdu accent, would sometimes greet me at the door wearing a shalwar kameez. She was affable and attentive, always offering me a water and a snack and disciplining Shorty whenever he got out of hand.

One day, she asked if I wanted to try something “very Pakistani” and handed me an ice-cold glass filled with what she described as punch. I took a sip and instantly fell in love, asking what it was. She went back into the kitchen to retrieve the bottle of Rooh Afza to show me the gorgeous floral label and the vibrant ruby concentrate inside. She let me keep it, and I took it home to show my family.

For years my family and I associated Rooh Afza with Pakistan, probably because Shorty’s family introduced us to it. Additionally, whenever I needed to replenish my supply at the local South Asian grocery, the bottles I reached for on the shelves came from Pakistan. To be exact, they came from Hamdard Laboratories in Karachi, Pakistan.

Until one day, while shopping at an Indian grocery in Louisiana, I came across a bottle of Rooh Afza that looked entirely different from what I had been used to for years. The label featured a cornucopia of botanicals—fruits, flowers, vegetables, and herbs—on a black background. It was still manufactured by Hamdard Laboratories, but I saw that this particular bottle came from India. Even more fascinating was that, in addition to rose and kewra, this Indian Rooh Afza also featured nearly a dozen other different botanicals, including sandalwood, carrot, pineapple, and even spinach.

Rooh Afza, but bottled in India. Photo by Rooh Afza

Rooh Afza is perhaps the most publicly recognized product of Hamdard Laboratories throughout South Asia. However, to equate Hamdard with Rooh Afza would be unjustly reductionist. Hamdard Laboratories was founded in Delhi in 1906 as a natural medicine company that employed Hindu-based Ayurvedic health practices with Persian-based Unani principles—a fusion of cultural ideas that was all too common in the Indian subcontinent. The company currently produces nearly 30 medicinal products to remedy all sorts of ailments from sore throats and hair loss to fertility and blood pressure.

The original company started as a humble shop where patients could get a diagnoses for their ailments and subsequently receive appropriate treatments for them. Hamdard’s founder, Hakeem Hafiz Abdul Majeed, created Rooh Afza shortly after he founded his company in 1907. The original purpose of this syrup was to combat fatigue and loss of energy due to excess heat. The combination of botanicals in Rooh Afza is said to have cooling properties and provides energy when the summer heat makes most people sluggish.

Almost immediately after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Abdul Majeed’s younger son, Hakeem Mohammed Said, moved to the newly formed country of Pakistan and established a branch of Hamdard Laboratories in Karachi. In 1953, he established another branch in Dhaka, East Pakistan at the time (which would later become the nation of Bangladesh). In the 1980s, Dr. Hakim Mohammed Yousuf Harun Bhuiyan took over the Bangladeshi branch of Hamdard.

In Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, Hamdard Laboratories is registered as a Waqf, which is a nonprofit organization under Islamic law. As such, the company in each country is responsible for providing educational scholarships and medical care to needy patients. In Pakistan, for instance, Hamdard maintains dozens of free clinics throughout the country where patients can be diagnosed free of charge and only need to pay a nominal fee for medications. Additionally, the company dispatches mobile healthcare vans that dispense medications (again, free of charge) to the most financially needy patients.

The combination of botanicals in Rooh Afza is said to have cooling properties and provides energy when the summer heat makes most people sluggish.

In an Islamic country like Pakistan, the importance of Hamdard and its most iconic product, Rooh Afza, is strongly felt during Ramadan. Because observant Muslims abstain from food and beverages from sunrise to sunset for an entire month during this holiday, Rooh Afza often features prominently in pre-fasting meals in order for the faithful to maintain cool internal temperatures while fasting. The floral drink is also a necessity when breaking fast, as it is said to effectively hydrate. Hamdard even gives out free cups of Rooh Afza at fast-breaking meals called iftars throughout the country, and outside mosques, to greet fasters with a replenishing glass of sweet refreshment.

You can find Hamdard on the streets, dispensing pre-mixed Rooh Afza and water to anyone and everyone who needs a drink during Pakistan’s infamous summer heatwaves.

As for me? I’m not sure that anything can cool me down quicker or quench my thirst more than a cold glass of Rooh Afza. After all, that’s what it was intended to do over 100 years ago. And it still serves the same purpose today.

Have you ever tasted Rooh Afza? Tell, tell in the comments.
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I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.

77 Comments

Dana M. August 29, 2019
Thank you. Pieces like this make me love Food52 more and more. Can't wait to see out this new drink.
 
NS August 29, 2019
Such a beautiful article. Heart warming comments. It definitely brought back fond childhood memories for me too. I wanted to add that to best enjoy this drink, serve it in a tall metal tumbler on a scorching hot day. The metal tumbler is key because it conducts the chill to your hands so much more effectively. No danger of warming your drink up - it'll be sucked down too fast. :^)
 
Brandon J. August 18, 2019
Loved the article and was captivated by all of the warm, beautiful and charming comments. Thank you for sharing :-)

For those here Stateside in N.E. Ohio, Sunny's Asian Food & Spices in Solon, Ohio carries both bottles from Pakistan and India. They also have a wonderful little cafe in back that produces some of the tastiest and most affordable food around.
 
ireneisaac April 26, 2019
Thank you Carlos for this wonderful article. Even though Rooh Afza has been a staple in my household since my childhood, reading your article made me fall in love with it all over again. There are several ways of enjoying the drink be it the traditional way in water/milk or with icecream, but I wanted more from it so I came up with a Rooh afza mousse cake. Pure bliss is all I could say after the first bite.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 26, 2019
Thank you so much for reading. Your mousse cake sounds heavenly! I would love the recipe. I have also been experimenting with Rooh Afza in a variety of dishes...even savory entrees. It is an excellent ingredient and adds a very elegant taste to almost anything you cook.
 
ireneisaac April 26, 2019
Sure...I would love to share it with you once I have all the measurements penned down. 
 
Lindsey April 22, 2019
Hi I am reading your article and the timing is perfect. We are hosting a graduation dinner in May and there will be families from Egypt & Pakistan. Ramadan will be taking place so I am working hard to plan a meal they can all eat with various restrictions. I would love to have a few bottles of the Rooh Afza on hand. Which do you recommend? The one with the red center and blue border with flowers or the black center with all the fruits and flowers. Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 22, 2019
Hi Lindsey. The bottle with the red center and blue border is the most popular in Pakistan, and it is also the most commonly available. I would go with that one if you are hosting families from Pakistan.
 
Lindsey April 22, 2019
Thanks so much!!!!
 
Subhash R. April 23, 2019
The one with black center with all fruits and flowers because it includes Ingredients
Its original formulation included:[7]

Herbs: purslane ("Khurfa seeds", Portulaca oleracea), Chicory, wine-grape raisins (Vitis vinifera), European white lily (Nymphaea alba), blue star water lily (Nymphaea nouchali), lotus (Nelumbo), Borage and Coriander
Fruits: orange, citron, pineapple, apple, berries, strawberry, raspberry, loganberry, blackberry, cherry, concord grapes, blackcurrant and watermelon
Vegetables: spinach, carrot, mint and mướp hương (Luffa aegyptiaca)
Flowers: rose, kewra (Pandanus fascicularis), lemon and orange
Roots: vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides)
 
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Carlos C. April 24, 2019
Subhash, the black label one is definitely a lot more nuanced. I really love it. It is difficult to find here, though. The simplified Pakistani version is much more readily available.
 
Subhash R. April 24, 2019
Actually, I didn't know that there are two versions available because when I bought it in a local international food store they had the black label one. As they say, you have to make with you have. They are cousins, anyway!
 
jerg April 13, 2019
Can be purchased through Amazon :)
 
Brownie April 11, 2019
I was wondering where to purchase in St Louis?
 
Subhash R. April 12, 2019
There are several Indian grocery stores (Jay International) in St. Louis. You can find them on internet and call them.
 
Charles W. April 12, 2019
I would suppose World Market in Kirkwood.
 
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Carlos C. April 12, 2019
Any Indian grocery store will carry it. It is almost considered a pantry staple. I have been to World Markets in several states. None of them carry it.
 
MG April 12, 2019
Thanks!
 
MG April 11, 2019
Is there any place in Milwaukee or Madison where I could purchase this?
Thanks!
 
teri April 11, 2019
Amazon
 
Beehive A. April 11, 2019
I was going to check if Indian Grocery and Spice (North Ave & Mayfair Rd) has it.
 
Subhash R. April 12, 2019
Try the several Indian grocery stores in Milwaukee and Madison.
 
MG April 12, 2019
Thanks for the reply, but I refuse to buy anything from Amazon.
 
MG April 12, 2019
I'll ty there, thanks!
 
MG April 12, 2019
I don't live too far from there so I will check it out.
Thank you!
 
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Carlos C. April 12, 2019
Hi MG. Any Indian grocery will carry Rooh Afza. It is practically a pantry staple.
 
Brownie April 11, 2019
Can’t wait to try this drink! Thanks
 
JenL April 8, 2019
A childhood favourite! Another great way to have it as a syrup is with crushed ice, pineapple syrup, pakola syrup and canned condensed milk in a cold sugary roadside treat in Pakistan and the subcontinent called goola gandha. 🍧
 
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Carlos C. April 9, 2019
ohhhhh I've heard of gola gandha and have seen videos of it being made. It looks heavenly. and Pakola syrup???? I love Pakola, but I didn't know there was a syrup for it.
 
JenL April 10, 2019
Yes there’s a syrup of Pakola. Not as popular as the soda itself though. The syrup for some reason isn’t as nice as the drink - Not sure why. But gola gandhas are awesome. Sticky and sweet but somehow works when it gets hot. A unique concoction :)
Another way to try Rooh Afza is as as a topping on kulfi ice cream!
 
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Carlos C. April 10, 2019
Yeah. that is curious that the syrup isn't as good as the soda, itself. Might be something to look out for next time I go to Pakistan. I will have to try Rooh Afza on kulfi. Thanks for all the information.
 
Aisha April 7, 2019
Thanks so much for this great article Carlos and spreading awareness about Rooh Afsa. We always have Rooh Afsa in our house but tend to use it most during Ramadan. It does make a delicious milkshake with vanilla ice cream, in addition to falooda to be enjoyed any time during the rest of the year!
 
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Carlos C. April 8, 2019
I am so glad you enjoyed the article, Aisha. I will have to try making a Rooh Afza milkshake, but I agree that it is great in a falooda.
 
Frances B. April 7, 2019
I love this article and especially it’s comments. The joy people feel about Rooh Afza is touching.
 
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Carlos C. April 7, 2019
People are very passionate about it. I was showing a bottle to a friend at an international supermarket once, and a woman came up to me and started talking about all the things you can make with it.
 
Subhash R. April 7, 2019
Do you know what the name "Rooh Afza" means? Rooh means Soul and Afza means Soothing, Soul Soothing. This drink was popular in the city I was growing up. I have a bottle of it in my house in US.
 
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Carlos C. April 7, 2019
Thanks for the translation! I also have a bottle of it in my house. One of my favorite things to drink
 
GRACE Y. April 7, 2019
My husband is from Malaysia, and we love pandan. Been looking for a cooling drink. Thanks for this awesome article. Can't wait to source it and try it! ;)
 
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Carlos C. April 7, 2019
Hi Grace. Thanks for the compliment! Now, be warned that the pandanus flower (kewra) tastes very different from pandan leaf. The flower is a lot more floral - almost like rose water and orange blossom water.

 
Linda April 7, 2019
Sounds lovely....what are the ingredients, please?
 
Panfusine April 7, 2019
Made my day reading this. Thank you.
Whatever the political differences may be, Rooh Afza definitely unites the Subcontinent. Rooh Afza Milk shakes, faloodas, Chia smoothies .. Drizzled over a scoop of ice cream, or even better - churned into the mix before the freezer. Heck I've even drizzled it over freshly gathered and packed snow during a blizzard.
Planning to mix some into Trader joe's Ginger and lemon seltzer after reading this piece.
 
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Carlos C. April 7, 2019
Wow! Those are some amazing recommendations! I had a bottle of Rooh Afza when I was living in Boston, but I never thought to drizzle it onto fresh snow. I did make a Rooh Afza poundcake, which was delicious. I'm going to have to try mixing it into ice cream batter. That sounds heavenly. I'm glad you liked the article
 
Eric K. April 8, 2019
I want it over ice cream now.
 
Marc April 5, 2019
This article came at such a serendipitous time — as the weather has been warming up slowly here in Chicago, I’ve found myself using my Rooh Afza more often. A little in soda water, on ice cream, and in yogurt. It’s amazing to see how far around the world it’s traveled, and I’m excited to see how many other people have fallen in love with it! It has a permanent place in my pantry since I’ve discovered it.
 
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Carlos C. April 5, 2019
ooh. I need to try it with soda water. I like it with a squeeze of lime, too. So glad you liked the article. It really is a magical nectar.
 
Aaron P. April 7, 2019
Hey Marc, any recommendations on where to purchase it? I’m in Chicago on the north side.
 
Rickey S. April 7, 2019
Hey Aaron, if you’ve never been, you must go to Devon Ave near the north side of Chicago. It is little India and Pakistan of Chicago. You will be able to find any and everything you need there. Personally, I go to Patel brothers. Their prices are super cheap and the quality of ingredients is amazing.
 
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Carlos C. April 7, 2019
I second Rickey's recommendations below. Devon Ave is the place to go. I always make a point to stop there whenever I am in Chicago. And Patel Brothers is your best bet. It is very well stocked, and you can find all sorts of delicious drink syrups in addition to Rooh Afza. If you visit on weekend in the late morning/early afternoon, be sure to stop by Tahoora for a traditional Pakistani breakfast. It is on my must-dos any time I am in Chicago.
 
Usama Q. April 5, 2019
Hi Carlos,

Hope you are doing well. It’s so refreshing to read such a sweet article about Rooh Afza manufactured in Pakistan. Thanks a lot. Your article made my day. Have a wonderful weekend.

Warm Regards
Usama Qureshi
MD & CEO
Hamdard Laboratories (Waqf) Pakistan
 
Zainab April 5, 2019
Send him some supplies!
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 5, 2019
Thank you so much, Usama. I am so glad you got to read this. Rooh Afza has a very special place in my family. As I was researching Hamdard Laboratories, I was very impressed with the history of the company and its work in Pakistan. The next time I visit Pakistan, I hope to be able to visit and learn more about your operations.
 
Fawaad S. April 5, 2019
Carlos. Thank You for sharing the Love of Rooh Afza with your readers. I am part of the Agency for Hamdard. We would love to do some recipes with you. Please share the email I can reach out on.

Thanks
Fawaad Saleem
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 5, 2019
Hello Fawaad,

It was my pleasure. and I hope I was able to expose readers to some of the beauty of Pakistani food and culture that has captivated me over the years. Definitely send me an email: [email protected]
 
Fawaad S. April 5, 2019
done
 
Zainab April 5, 2019
Ah Carlos, can we get you to come to Pakistan? This was such a wonderful article! You must try more of our drinks (and delish desi food). Have you heard of/tasted 'pakola'? It tastes like ice cream, only better.

Also, we have a contender for Rooh Afza called Jam e Shirin (bowl of sweetness - loosely translated). They taste almost same but I think Jam e Shirin wins!
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 5, 2019
Hi Zainab! Thank you so much for reading! I actually DID go to Pakistan last year. I just visited Lahore and went to visit a farm in Punjab. I absolutely loved my time there, and I can't wait to revisit.

I LOVE desi food. I actually learned to cook desi food before my own culture's cuisine (we ate Peruvian food so much, that I was bored of it LOL). I am a big fan of Shireen Anwar. I bought her cookbook when I was in Pakistan, and her recipes are spot-on.

I love Pakola. It is delicious, and I love that vibrant green color. And I actually just bought a bottle of Jam e Shirin. I am trying to limit my sugar intake, so I was really happy to see that there is a sugar free Jam e Shirin. It is delicious!

I would love to meet other food writers and food professionals next time I am in Pakistan.
 
Adnan K. April 8, 2019
I think rooh afza is better than jaam e shirin , but yeah both are just awesomely sweet especially in ramadan .
 
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Carlos C. April 8, 2019
Hi Adnan. I will have to do a taste comparison. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel that the Rooh Afza / Jam e Shirin competition in Pakistan is similar to Pepsi vs. Coca Cola in the US.
 
Khatri April 12, 2019
Very true.....every person has a favourite and refuses to acknowledge the other
 
HT April 5, 2019
I always keep a bottle of the Pakistani syrup at home. Never know when the craving occurs. Plus, on super hot summer days, it feels so good to have a glass loaded with ice. I love the fact that it’s not carbonated and can also be made with milk and basil seeds for a cooling and filling drink.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 5, 2019
I am also not a huge fan of carbonated drinks, so I like having this around. You are like the 6th person to remind me about adding it to milk, so I am going to have to do that soon. Thank you for reading