The explosion of humour on Twitter after Rahul Gandhi’s comment that Coca-Cola was started by a shikanji seller tickled the neurons of my brains, evoking a plethora of fond memories of this summer favourite. And so I decided to pen down a small but heartfelt ode to this spectacularly refreshing thirst quencher that proved to be a saviour during that one scorching summer I spent in Delhi.
Shikanji, Hindi for a lemonade spiked with flavourful spices such as roasted cumin, amchur and black salt, is a cultural gem. An incredibly refreshing and cooling drink, it has dozens of localized versions but is especially popular in north India where one can often spot handcarts with giant clay matkas on the streets, selling the chilled drink garnished with mint leaves and boondi.
The icy-cold lemonade is also sold by street sellers who still use old-world shikanji machines — tall cylindrical vessels, often wrapped in red cotton cloth. Inside the vessel lies a steel jar filled with the spice-infused drink that is surrounded by layers of salted crushed ice.
Using the handle of the jar’s tightly shut lid, the vendor vigorously shakes the jar around the vessel, causing the shikanji to cool down almost to freezing point. He then serves it with a fresh squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of fresh mint leaves!
As my Punjabi landlady shared with me, shikanji is a ubiquitous drink in most Delhi homes but true-blue Delhiwallas still prefer going out into the city’s streets in search of these shikanjiwallahs!
However, the most invigorating way of enjoying shikanji (according to my humble self) is the version in which it is hand-blended with banta to give it a cheery fizz. The colloquial name for goli soda (goli for the marble each cod-neck bottle of soda is sealed with), banta is a quintessential part of Delhi since years unknown. In fact, it even has a Wiki entry of its own!
As such, the rise and popularity of other carbonated drinks may have upped the competition, but banta’s awesome ‘desi-ness’ and ability to jolt your soul into freshness has ensured that its reputation as a thirst quencher remains unhampered.
I remember street shopping with my friends at Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar on hot sunny days, with innumerable glasses of banta curbing our thirst in the best possible way and getting us going for second rounds of shopping!
Interestingly, Indore has its own version of shikanji that is a world removed from the North Indian shikanji experience. Indori shikanji has neither lemon nor water. Rather, it is made of milk and dry fruits with just a hint of tanginess from the mattha (buttermilk) and has a dewy sweetness to it. A great place to try this unique drink would be Indore’s famed night market, Sarafa Bazaar.
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So next time you are craving something cold and refreshing, skip the Coca-Cola and try the quintessentially Indian shikanji — a drink that has millions of cherished memories and a centuries-old culture behind it!
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)