From Kerala’s avil milk to Tamil Nadu’s jigarthanda and more, here are the captivating origin stories and histories behind southern India’s favourite drinks.
Growing up in Kerala’s Malabar region, a vivid memory from my childhood includes impatiently waiting for classes to get over so I could sprint to the nearest bakery and drink a chilled glass of avil milk. The drink is close to everyone’s heart here — irrespective of age.
As was the case in my region, the foods and drinks that a community consumes form an integral part of its culture.
And each has a peculiar history — whether it’s the story of filter coffee’s origins from the 17th century, when a Muslim saint supposedly smuggled coffee beans from Yemen to India for the first time, or Tamil Nadu’s beloved jigarthanda, which several accounts state was introduced during Mughal rule
Like these, here is a list of eight South Indian beverages that are not only delicious but also come with a rich history and captivating origin story.
1. Kambu Koozh
This high-protein porridge/drink made of local millets is commonly sold in Tamil Nadu. Roadside stalls and luxurious restaurants alike serve the dish in many varieties.
Kambu Koozh is served as a thick porridge or a loose beverage, and is available in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. It is one of the cheapest dishes available in the state and is a daily item of labourers, drivers and domestic workers.
Customisation is the best part of koozh. It can be served with buttermilk, onion, chillies or any items of choice. The dish is mentioned in Sangam literature, the earliest piece of writing in Tamil, as a healthy breakfast option. It became the regular food of the working class in Tamil Nadu majorly because of the high protein content and low price.
While finger millet is commonly used to prepare the dish, bajra/kambu (pearl millet) are also used to make it sometimes.
2. Thari Kanji
In Muslim households, it is common to end the Ramadan fast by eating dates and the traditional thari kanji, or semolina porridge.
Its history is related to the iftar feast. In earlier days, when people couldn’t afford lavish feasts for iftar, they restricted the dishes to a few, of which thari kanji was the most popular. This has continued as tradition and now, iftar is incomplete without this dish, which is a simple one made of roasted semolina.
“The aroma of roasted semolina is not what you will experience in the recipe, but that of the roasted shallots and subtle cardamom. The fried shallot in the topping is unique to Malabar and adds a distinctly sweet flavour,” wrote food blogger Sobha.
Sambharam is Kerala’s version of chilled buttermilk. It can also be described as the South Indian version of lassi.
Ever since dairy farming became prevalent in India, buttermilk has been part of the daily diet of many Indians. It can be in the form of lassi, chaas or sambharam.
Unlike North India’s sweet variety, sambharam is a spicy variant of buttermilk. It is an excellent cooler and the go-to drink for Keralites during the summer, made by adding crushed bird’s eye chillies, shallots, curry leaves, ginger and salt to diluted buttermilk.
In Kerala, it came in as the common drink of daily wage labourers who would toil in the scorching sun all day.
“We prefer morumvellam (another name of sambharam) more than water during work because it boosts energy and fights dehydration,” says Asiya, a daily wage labourer from Palakkad, Kerala.
4. Filter Coffee
A perfectly brewed cup of filter coffee made of a strong decoction and sweetened hot milk, served in a copper glass, is an image that remains inseparable from South India.
To talk about the history of this beverage, we need to go back to the story of how coffee reached India.
It is said that in the early 17th century, a Muslim saint named Baba Budan from Chikmagalur smuggled a few coffee beans to India after his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Back then, transporting green coffee beans was not allowed. Baba is said to have hidden seven beans in his long beard. He then planted these in his hometown, and by the 20th century, coffee became an integral part of most southern Indian homes.
The filter coffee as we know and love today was first introduced by Indian Coffee House.
Also called panaka in Kannada, this is a quintessential South Indian summer cooler made of jaggery, dry ginger, and cardamom.
It is majorly prepared during the occasions of Ram Navami and Narasimha Jayanthi, and is the go-to summer drink for many Kannadigas.
What makes the drink special is that even if it is served at room temperature, it works as a great cooler. The drink is also popular in other southern states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
History suggests that panakam was earlier used as an Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) in parts of South India where the humidity is high. The drink is rich with antioxidants, minerals, iron and potassium.
In several Hindu temples, panakam is served as an offering, especially during summer months and Rama Navami.
6. Nannari Sherbet
The love for sherbet unites India across geographical boundaries, even as the traditional summer cooler comes in varieties that change from region to region.
In the South, the most popular sherbet is made of nannari (Indian sarsaparilla) extract.
As per Wicked Spoon Confessions, the oldest mention of sherbet can be found in a 12th century Persian book written by Zakhireye Khwarazmshahi. Said to be the “world’s first soft drink”, sherbet first reached India during the ruling period of Mughal emperor Babur from Gulf countries (then Persia). It soon became the favourite drink of Babur and his successors.
Sherbet can be made from any fruit or herb, and its cooling capabilities, as well as accessibility, make it a popular drink. Among iconic eateries that serve this drink is the 115-year-old nannari sherbet shop in Madurai, today run by fourth-generation owner N Guha Ganapathy. He sources nannari roots from Palakkad, Kerala and sells upto 2,500 bottles per day.
“The roots are soaked in fresh water for 12 hours, boiled for 15 minutes before the extract is collected, cooled and mixed with sugar syrup and citric acid,” said Ganapathy to The Hindu.
7. Avil milk
Made of banana, milk and roasted rice flakes, this is comparatively a modern drink that first appeared in Malappuram.
Kottakkal-native Hussain V was the first to set up an avil milk stall in Kerala in 1993.
“Avil vellam (rice flakes water) was a common drink in Muslim households of Malappuram,” he explains to The Better India.
About how he started selling it, he says, “I was always interested in experimenting with food, and after Class 10, I set up my business V H Avil Milk in the heart of Kottakkal. I sell a newer version of the drink — this one is a layered concoction of mashed banana, crispy roasted rice flakes, ice cold milk and peanuts for an extra crunch. Today it is a best-loved drink of Malabar and popular in other states too.”
There are now hundreds of joints in Kerala that sell this popular cooler for a reasonable price. Many put fancy twists to the drink — dry fruits, ice cream, or nuts — but the original avil milk reigns superior.
Even though jigarthanda — a cold drink made with milk, almond pisin, khoya, and nannari root syrup — did not originate in Madurai, it is inseparable from the city today.
The drink, which somewhat resembles falooda, has its origins in the north, but did not gain the same level of popularity. The name itself is derived from two Hindi words — jigar and thanda, or something that “cools the heart”.
The drink was made popular in Madurai in the ‘70s by Sheikh Abdul Kadhar, who ran a pushcart stall which has now turned into the Savya Rasa restaurant.
There are two theories about its origin — while one says it originated in the kitchens of the Mughals, the other states that it comes from the coastal region between Pudukkottai and Ramanathapuram, through which goods are transported from northern India to Madurai.
According to historian Vani C Chenguttuwan, the chewy pisin used in jigarthanda could have been seaweed earlier, which was consumed by travellers as a rich source of protein. The items would have been altered and turned into the present form.
Chef Sheik Mohideen of Savya Rasa notes, “The makers of jigarthanda in Madurai still call it kadarpasi (seaweed in Tamil), but it is in fact almond pisin that is used these days.”
A Brief History of South Indian Filter Coffee, published by Culture Trip on 17 May 2018.
The story of 115 years old sherbet shop in Madurai, published by The Hindu on 24 February 2021.
History of Sherbet: What is Sherbet & Interesting Sherbet Facts, published by Wicked Spoon Confessions on 3 September 2020.
Madurai’s jigarthanda: A confluence of taste and cultures in a glass tumbler, published by The News Minute on 7 May 2021.
Panakam – The Ultimate Summer Cooler From South India, published by NDTV on 3 May 2018.
Cool off with koozh, published by DownToEarth on 17 July 2021.
Kerala food: Sambharam Recipe by Chef Regi Mathew of Kappa Chakka Kandhari, published by Scroll.in on 12 September 2020.
Edited by Divya Sethu