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My childhood summer memories from the south Indian city of Chennai (then called Madras) come wrapped in a bright ruby red sheen. During those long and dry months, when temperatures regularly soared above 100 degrees, it was Rooh Afza, a fragrant syrup used in drinks and desserts, that provided cool relief from all the heat and humidity.
From salted buttermilk to fresh sugarcane juice, India has a variety of summer beverages to beat the heat. But Rooh Afza has a special place among them. A pantry staple in South Asian homes across the world, this fruit syrup concentrate is served diluted with cold water as an immediate pick-me-up. The first mild floral notes of distilled rose quickly turn into a rich and complex medley as the fruity notes—grapey, orangey—take over.
Originally created in 1907 by a traditional medicine practitioner in old Delhi as a remedy against heat stroke and dehydration, Rooh Afza is also popular during the month of Ramadan, used to break the daylong roza fast. When the 1947 Partition divided the newly independent country, one of the founder’s sons stayed back in India while the other moved to Pakistan. There are now three different companies that produce Rooh Afza—one in India, one in Pakistan, and one in Bangladesh—and the beverage is popular in each country as a completely homegrown product made with local ingredients.
I remember the first time I tasted it at a friend’s house—the sheer sugary delight of it! As if the world had suddenly become a cooler place. When I got home, my seven-year-old self demanded petulantly of my mother, “Why haven’t I had this before?”
That was the beginning of a love affair that has lasted to this day. As a grown-up, when I now reach for Rooh Afza, I try to convince myself that it is a “healthful” alternative to soda despite all the sugar. If in any doubt, I only need to look at the long list of ingredients with all kinds of cooling and nourishing properties, and that virtuous halo instantly lights up around my head. From essence of rose and screw pine (known in Hindi as “kewra,” from the pandanus flower), to a wide range of fruit and herb extracts, including apple, pineapple, orange, coriander, and vetiver (the ingredients vary slightly depending on the country of production), Rooh Afza has it all. Take that, cola.
Over the years, I have tried it mixed with lemon juice and crushed mint leaves, drizzled over ice cream or falooda (a refreshing cold dessert with ice cream, vermicelli noodles, rose syrup, and sweet basil seeds), and even as a milkshake. But I still like it best with chilled water, just the way it was intended to be had. These days. though, it is not about quenching thirst or cooling off or even the subtly sweet flavor. To me, Rooh Afza is all about nostalgia. Now living far away from where I grew up, a sip of this scarlet refresher takes me back to long-ago sweltering summer afternoons in my hometown.
It was many years after I tried my first sip that I learned Rooh Afza, from the original Persian, translates to “soul uplifter.” A more apt name for this beverage, I can’t imagine.