Having lost a front tooth to a particularly ‘rum’ old night at a Bollywood bash in Delhi, I understand only too well the importance of staying properly hydrated. Not to mention the dangerously irresistible allure of a spicy, enticing, intoxicating Indian decoction. Or three. But beware – when you get to four, you’re likely to be headed for the floor.
So, in the spirit of laying off the spirit somewhat, it’s perhaps time to talk of teetotalism – and to champion the brilliant breadth of the sort of innocent Indian refreshers Dassana describes. And, in the spirit of balance, a few devilish drinks for good measure and good times. Make ‘em, buy ‘em or order ‘em in a restaurant. Just get this charming collection down your neck:
‘The unspiked funs’
I borrow this inspired term from Potli, whose range of non-alcoholic tipples is nothing short of inspiring. La Porte des Indes does a nice little line in virginal, virtuous superjuices blending exotic fruit with various supplements and botanicals. The ‘Nirvana‘ – a green tea, mandarin and lychee potion – could well take you there.
Dishoom is the unrivalled king of the ‘soft’ sell – offering a full complement of ‘botal sodas’ like Limca and Thums Up alongside the stunning, slaking sharbats. Try the kokum-based ‘Kala Khatta‘, whose downright bizarre, sweet-sour-n-salty flavour is first class – and surely addictive enough to render it a Class A substance. Become your own supplier with Dassana’s recipe.
Masala Zone is the only place I know where you’ll find spices floating in your Coke. You’ll also find that it’s on purpose, and find it rather pleasant to boot. For a budget version, I pop a sprinkle of chaat masala and a squidge of lime into a drop of supermarket ‘supavalu’ cola. But that’s me.
Falooda is a sort-of knickerbocker glory, gloriously sporting its fur coat and its knickers – a rare fancy beverage to boast both style and substance. Packed with rice noodles, jelly, slippery soaked basil seeds, rose syrup and milk, surely falooda is the greatest evidence that ‘unspiked funs’ still have spirit by the spadeful. To describe the drink as ‘a bonkers beverage’ says nothing, yet says it all. Versions vary from vendor to vendor, but Diwana Bhel Poori House’s is legendary. If you fancy a Blue Peter-style DIY bash, get your mitts on a bizarre box mix like Laziza’s from Spices of India.
Something to warm your cockles
Still not hot enough under the collar? Dishoom’s ‘Naughty Chai‘ – Baileys, cognac, or chocolate – will sort that out sharpish. At La Porte des Indes, meanwhile, indulge in the fabulously retro ritual of a flamed liqueur coffee. The drinks trolley is trundled tableside; a dram of this and a dash of that is upended into a glass; the rim is crusted with sugar; and WHOOSH. Beware, for they contain sufficient spirit to lift one’s spirits sufficiently for the foreseeable.
If that all sounds a little too inflammatory, choose to soothe instead with La Porte’s extensive tea selection – try Neeli Chai or The Pondicherry. For the best masala chai in London, visit Potli, where tumblers of scalding hot liquid come complete with a textbook skin – their surfaces pitted like the craters of the moon or, less romantically, an acne-ridden teen. Saravana Bhavan’s chai is all frothy frippery, the bubbly head built so high each metal cup is served in a bowl to catch the inevitable overspill.
On the street, Chai Fusions prides itself on never spilling a single drop – even when demonstrating the famous 1-metre pour, streaming the spiced liquid into tiny clay cups which impart their earthy flavour most excellently. Chai Fusions vends the rare tea that is Kashmiri pink chai. Can’t find it? Never fear, for you’ll find Sumayya Jamil offers a strangely salty and absolutely stellar recipe.
It’s not garam, garam chai when the weather hots up. Down South where it’s frequently scorchio, folks have a fondness for coffee. Preparation of South Indian ‘kaapi’ is a fine art, as Priya Sreeram meticulously details. The king of the bean is the Monsooned Malabar Chowder Singh waxes lyrical on.
If you need a little masala to mix things up, try ‘chukka kapi’, boiled up with sugar, spice and all things nice. Get Nirapara or Eastern’s ready-made box mixes from South Indian grocers. South India is not entirely tea teetotal, though – Andra loves its unique chai as Chowder Singh explains.
Lasso a Lassi – or make Lassi come home
As a youngster who considered Yop! The epitome of yum, you cam imagine I took to lassi like a much-loved family pet. And as an adult, I took to the lassi purveyed by Indie Ices. If your travel leads you to Leeds, keep your eyes peeled for Mike and his tremendous tuk-tuk, Asha. If you have a few ripe mangoes waiting to be peeled, put ‘em to good use in the Urban Rajah’s mango lassi recipe.
The ‘Mastani’ unique to Pune is a sort of milkshake – offering richer refreshment by adding cream and ice cream to the mango mix. In London, Potli’s ‘Masti’ comes close, the tropical concoction comprising mango, apple, mint and coconut cream.
Prefer to savour something more savoury? Select a salty lassi, or seek a religious experience with the vaghareli chaas at Shayona at the Neasden Temple. I wasn’t sure I was a fan till I saw the bottom of the glass – and finally saw the light. Similarly strange is borhani – a spiced, sulphurous buttermilk-based beverage, a favourite at Bangladeshi weddings – and, at 75p a serving, a favourite amongst Dhaka Biryani House diners.
And you just knew that Dishoom would serve a lassi to make your day go with a bang. A bhang, rather, though not the real stuff. But an imitation bhang lassi makes noise of its own nonetheless – especially when the spin on the traditional Holi beverage blends mint, ginger, grenadine, and coconut milk, crowned with candied fennel and laced with an optional dash of rum. Just a ‘chota peg’, mind.
Oh go on then, if you must… this lot are ‘lovely but lethal’
I’ll keep this section brief, although the selections at most of these Indian establishments are anything but. Particularly concerning Carom at Meza, where the cocktail list runs over the 200-mark and there’s the separate ‘Botanical Gin Garden’ menu besides. Ingredients are weird but frequently work wonderfully – try the saffron-spiced ‘Maharajah Fizz’, the ‘Passion Fruit Chutney-tini’, or the crisp ‘Shahi Aloe’ combining gin and aloe vera.
More clever combos are called to the bar at Benares for the ‘Masala Sour‘ and the curry-leaf-laced ‘Mumbai Martini‘. Talking martinis, Potli’s Tamarind and Basil blend gets tastebuds twanging and tongues wagging. That wag Cyrus Todiwala, meanwhile, serves up a dose of typically (coco)nutty action in the form of Cafe Spice Namaste’s ‘CoCorrrumba!’, then gets all hot and bothered with a Red Chilli Mojito featuring in-house-matured Kashmiri Red Chilli Rum.
For the rum-mest dos, only Dishoom’s Permit Room will do. And for me, it’s Edwina’s Affair that gets my heart racing. I like to clutch a copper cup whose icy contents look like one of those snowman-shaped Mr Frosty machines churned it out; doused with gin, rose and cardamom. I like to sip from that cup even more. Yet more tipples worth sipping at Cinnamon Culture, where senses are caressed by a ‘Saffron Garden’, then given a deliciously rude awakening with an uncompromising vodka-Tabasco punch.
At Roti Chai everything comes up roses with a ‘Gulab’, whilst the ‘Triple Charge’ tastes deliciously like melted rocket ice lollies. Pucker up for the ‘Nimbu Sour‘ – all tart citrus and pungent black salt. La Porte des Indes’ coconut-water-based cocktails keep those electrolytes in check enough for you to remember that you MUST try the LP Iced Tea. Talking iced-cool, Namaaste Kitchen has a bevvy to keep you ‘Cool As A Cucumber’ – and a chic, sleek inky purple ‘Indian Tea’.
If you’d rather not encounter a long list from which it’s almost impossible to make a shortlist, avoid Anise at all costs, or you might just have to have a ‘Cubarb Rusty’ rum punch, a thandai-based ‘Up The Khyber’, or an aromatic ‘Himalayan Cooler‘. What penance. Perhaps you ought just to stay home and rustle up a few of Tulleeho’s tastiest tipples – recipes to relish include ‘Tar-booze’ and ‘Sex in Mumbai’.
And do try these delights from Dassana – when your tongue’s stopped squirming and untied itself sufficiently to speak, it’ll thank you.
- Jal Jeera: Literally, ‘cumin water’ – a classic North Indian cooler seemingly comprising every taste on God’s green earth and a few intergalactic ones besides. Just try it.
- Rooh Afza with sabza seeds: A rosy, herby syrup (the Indian Campari?!) littered with slippery, crunchy basil seeds.
- Paan Gulkand: A highly unusual combo of pureed paan leaves, sweet rose preserve, soaked basil seeds and milk. One to puzzle and pleasure in equal measure.