Unseasonably cooler weather and rains plagued most of North India these past weeks, damaging crops and further exacerbating an untenable situation for farmers. In Delhi, though, everyone guiltily enjoyed the slower onslaught of hot weather, until this week. The heat has enveloped everything. And refreshing drinks, made from short- and long-lived seasonal fruits, have arrived on the streets.
What is in season and on the streets of Old Delhi these days? There are individual squeezed juices that are poured through a sieve of mosambi (Citrus limetta, also called sweet lime), watermelon, pineapple or mango. Each seller flavors his fresh juices according to his strict ideas of what should or should not go in the juice. Sometimes he sprinkles it with a twist of nimbu (lime) to cut the sweetness and add tang; other times he may add a bit of sulfurous black salt, and/or a pinch of his favorite masala mix.
Surender Singh sells bael (wood apple, Aegle marmelos) in Old Delhi, not far from Turkman Gate on Chittli Qabar Road. Meanwhile, Ravindra Chawan makes and sells bael sherbet. He methodically cracks the fruit open, scoops out the pulp and seeds, mixes it with water, then either pours it through a sieve or leaves it pulpy and adds sugar and ice. There it sits in a large metal cylinder, covered with a red wet cloth to keep it cool.
Chawan, 40 years old and not married, came to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh 25 years ago from a family of builders. Some of them work as migrant builders in the Emirates, but he remained in India to sell seasonal fruits and nuts throughout the year on Lal Kuan Bazar Road and at a location close to the Chawri Metro. Once the bael season ends, he switches to jamun (Syzygium cumini) fruit, followed by bhutta (corn). This takes him through to September. Then, as the cooler months descend, Chawan sources and sells roasted moong phali, peanuts, from October to after Holi in February. Come March he vends angur, grapes. Then he returns to selling bael sherbet. His customers crave these cyclic offerings, which are still connected to seasons, still rooted in locale and place. He provides a type of anchor. And his customers drink with great intention, as if they are not only cooling the body, but also nourishing it to protect it from all the intensity the heat can bring.
Phalsa (Grewia asiatica) berries come from dry Gujarat and are sour and sweet, with a relatively large seed. They have a deep eggplant color that relieves stomach heat and upset. The elderly vendor, located on Chittli Qabar Road, suggests preparing the sherbet by “gently washing the berries to avoid bruising and puncturing. Add water and mash it, then strain it over ice and add sugar, plenty of sugar, because we are still early in the season, so they are still sour.” A short-lived and beloved fruit, phalsa are sold in 50- to 100-gram amounts. One customer smiled at the sighting of phalsa on the streets. She glowed with a memory of childhood spring delights.
But when heat gets inside the body, and there is no relief from the sweat pouring off, that’s when we yearn for shikanji or jaljeera. Shikanji is laden with sweetened frothy crushed ice, lemon juice, black salt and spices. The drink quenches and provides lip-smacking rehydration. So glad for the relief, we greedily draw it down, just to make the joyous empty-glass-with-straw sucking sound. Azad Ijaz Ahmad’s moveable shikanji cart with a requisite umbrella sits on Lal Kuan Road, just north of the Chawri Metro Stop.
Right next to him is the jaljeera vendor. Jaljeera is yet another type of lemon drink that is sweet and salty but also infused with plenty of bright green mint and roasted ground cumin seeds. Each and every element in each drink provides some type of respite from heat, in addition to hydration. So rest assured that there are plenty of choices – and informed street vendors – to provide all the elements to stave off heat, cool the body and protect it from the ravages of the hot and humid Delhi spring and summer.
(photos by Sarah Khan)