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.
After Majeed died, his wife and two sons continued the business. When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, one of the sons moved to Pakistan and established a separate branch of Hamdard there, while the other son continued the business in India.
Both businesses are independently run today but their products are "almost the same," says Hamid Ahmed, Majeed's great-grandson, currently the CEO of Hamdard India's food division, whose annual turnover is nearly $70 million. In 2020, the company reported that it earned more than $37 million from Rooh Afza sales alone.
A charitable trust was established in 1948 and "till date, 85% of our profits go to charity," Ahmed says. That's also true for Hamdard Pakistan.
More than 20 ingredients go into Rooh Afza, says Ahmed. Sugar and the distillate of 10 herbs are key parts of the recipe, which is kept secret, but is known to include coriander, fragrant screwpine, chicory, stone flower (a type of lichen) and fruit juices. The drink gets its striking crimson hue from food coloring.
Today, Rooh Afza is Hamdard's star product, accounting for 60% of its India business, Ahmed says. "Nine hundred million glasses of Rooh Afza are consumed every year in India," he says.
Manufacturing begins in January, to build stock ahead of the country's peak summer months of April and May, when demand surges.
"During peak season, there are around 20 to 25 trucks of Rooh Afza going out of the factory every single day," Ahmed says. Production continues until June, before pausing for maintenance.
Forty million bottles of Rooh Afza were manufactured last year, Ahmed says.
While the classic Rooh Afza concentrate, sold in 25-ounce bottles, is still popular among older adults, Hamdard has been trying to appeal to younger customers, introducing new variants like a fizzy, ready-to-drink version and a Rooh Afza fusion drink mixed with juices. There's also a sugar-free alternative and a Rooh Afza milkshake.
For those on the go, "We have also come out with a sachet of Rooh Afza, where you can open a bottle of water and then just pour a sachet — one dosage of fluids — into your bottle, shake it and consume it whenever you want," says Ahmed.
While the most common way of preparing Rooh Afza is by mixing one or two tablespoons in milk or water — and there's a heated debate among fans about which is better — Ahmed says he himself prefers a slightly different version.
"Rooh Afza mixed with soda and a little bit of lemon is the ideal drink that I have," he says.
Food critic Reshii says you can also add sabja, or basil seeds, to Rooh Afza and milk. Basil seeds are like chia seeds but absorb water immediately and swell up. They're packed with fiber and minerals and are often added to South Asian drinks and desserts as a thickening agent. Experimental cooks have incorporated the ruby-red liquid into a number of recipes — from cocktails to falooda, an Indian dessert made with ice cream and vermicelli.
Old Delhi is also known for a special, popular Rooh Afza preparation called Sharbat-e-Mohabbat, or the drink of love. It's a pink beverage made with Rooh Afza mixed in milk and watermelon juice, served with ice.
But after preparing the drink all day, at least one vendor admits he doesn't really care for Rooh Afza. And he's not alone.
The drink has a fair share of haters. Some find it too sweet and consider its sugar content unhealthy. Reshii, the food critic, had to cut down her own Rooh Afza indulgence 10 years ago, after she was diagnosed with diabetes. Since then, she says, summers are just not the same anymore.
Some customers in Old Delhi said they prefer lemonade over Rooh Afza. It is also up against a flood of competition from newer beverages like soft drinks and carbonated juices and has inspired knockoffs too.
However, Reshii says, Rooh Afza endures. "Any product has ups and downs," she says. "But this thing is something that has weathered all storms."
In the market surrounding Old Delhi's historic Jama Masjid, Rooh Afza vendor Wahid has seen for himself the drink's enduring appeal. He's been pouring it for 15 years at a stall that has been in his family for three generations.
"Those who have Rooh Afza once," he says, "always come back."
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