I grew up drinking nimbu pani in the sweltering summer heat of Chandigarh, India. This Indian lemon-limeade is combination of Indian limes (which are like large yellowish key limes with sweet fragrant juice) mixed with sugar, salt, pepper, and the funky, slightly sulphuric, umami hit of black salt—all topped with club soda and a cube or two of ice, if you’re lucky! It’s the best cooler in the world and it trained my childish palette to expect salty, spicy, and sweet to sit side by side in my refreshments.
Decades later, at a gas station stop en-route to my in-laws in Eastern North Carolina, I see long, slender packets of salted peanuts being sold at the checkout counter. A middle-aged man grabs a cold glass bottle of Pepsi nestled in a cooler full of ice and dumps half the bag of peanuts into his soda- slurping the foam just before it bubbles onto his hands and shoes. See, the people of my chosen home in the American South and the people of my former home in India have both discovered that a hit of salt in a cold cola makes it exponentially more refreshing. Masala Coke is the bridge between traditional salty, spicy, herbaceous Indian coolers and the relatively modern luxury of Coca-Cola. Leave it to us Desis to find a way to Indianize everything!
Putting a spice blend and chopped cilantro into your soda might seem totally weird, but I haven’t found anyone who didn’t say “yum!” when they tried this drink. Try and find a good chaat masala—Spicewalla (available online) makes an excellent one, as does MDH—available at most Indian markets. The extra black salt takes it over the top and is worth seeking out. —CheetieKumar