Call it Shardai or Thandaai, here is why we think that a tippler or two can be a wonderful treat this season – and the next too.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Stock Images

Imagine Thandai. It is a glass full of all things good, rich, and delicious in life, food-wise speaking. It has the cooling poppy seeds, the aroma of saffron and fennel, a generous helping of almonds, cashew, and pistachio along with that pumpkin seeds and of course the rose petals that adds a hint of romance to this delicious drink. Add a dash of bhaang and it becomes a drink of the gods. After all, mythology has it that it was a similar milk-based drink that Goddess Parvati gave to Lord Shiva to ease the pain after he drank all the poison from Samudra Manthan.

In fact, history too calls the Bhaang mixed Thandai one of those special parting drinks that men with arms would consume before they went to the battlefield as a vigor potion that enabled them to fight despite of grave injuries. For ages, the Nihang – the armed warrior order – have the tradition of having Shardai, considered the cousin of Thandai, as part of their battle ritual. For them, this milk-based, nuts and seeds- fortified drink wasn’t just a ritual but also the most effective manner to sustain themselves through the vagaries of a battle, which included these really long periods of eating nothing and often staying awake and travelling at ungodly hours of the night.

Fascinatingly, the shardai or as seasoned Chef Pradeep Tejwani (Founder, Young Turks) would fondly call “bhaang” worked like a charm. “Such was the effectiveness of this drink that was mostly made in dourai, a deep bottom stone vessel that was used to make the drink using a wooden spatula, that it didn’t only keep them satiated and rehydrated for long hours but also did well in keeping them calm, which helped while strategizing.”

In fact, continues the Sindhi and erstwhile Punjab food expert, “Thandai or Shardai back then was considered more of a brain food that doubled up as a coolant rather than the other way round. The drink was made to take care of your entire body functioning and sustainability and hence the choice of ingredients that could enable it to happen.”

Take the existence of the green cardamom and milk for instance, continues Chef Tejwani, whose first childhood memory of seeing the labour-intensive drink was by mixing everything in a dourai that would often have his cousins and others taking turns to grind, mix and add new things. Back then the three things constant about making Thandai at home was the onset of summers, the milk – which for some strange reason tasted better -  and the availability of roses, an essential component in making this drink a sharbat or as we would call our “childhood’s original milkshake.”

Concurs Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Zest and Garam Masala), who found the drink the “only fodder needed before we could scoot to the farms playing till the sun set.” But what made the drink that evolved over the years from being an antidote in Sharangadhara Samhita for its ability to restore the body and mind functioning to becoming one of the celebratory beverages of Holi and a preferred summer coolant, so special? The answer, say the culinary experts, “need a little more understanding of the purpose for which Thandai or Shardai was made.”

According to foodlore, the 1000BC drink began as a fortified milk beverage that had the potential of not only regulating the body’s temperature but also helped the brain functioning – and was primarily used for the same purpose. Gradually as Charak Samhita advanced, the milk preparation thanks to the knowledge of how milk and cardamom help to recalibrate the circadian rhythm took a more pre and post-op role where the body requirements were met from the drink that would involve minimal cooking. In fact, adds Chef Seth, “the only thing that is boiled while making thandai is the milk that helps evaporate the water while bringing the proteins and Vitamins, especially D and B12 which is essential for calcium absorption to the fore. And hence most traditional recipes call for the milk to only roll boil, enough for the rest of the ingredients to incorporate well and not burn the heat sensitive protein and other nutrients away. The rest of the work is done by breaking down the ingredients to an easy to digest proportion and adding them in layers for maximum effect.

Take the case of the nuts and seeds mix, says Chef Seth, who finds it one of the interesting ways to not only garner some high quality, natural sweetness and fat that is essential for the brain to function but also get a good dose of Riboflavin and Thiamine, which together aid in releasing energy from carbohydrates, proteins and other sources to keep the body well supplied.  Milk when chilled works much like a part sedative and part stomach coolant that keeps the temperature below for the food to digestive well. This, say nutritional therapist, “is what we identify as the cooling, satiating effect that comes as soon as you finish a glass of Thandai.”

Fennel seeds and poppy seeds, which are put after crushing them into the drink aren’t just there for the taste or the aroma, but to ensure that there is little inflammation in the body. This, adds Chef Tejwani, “ensures there are no intestinal irritation. This is crucial given that in summers our Agni, which as per Ayurveda administers the system of digestion, is dormant can often lead acid reflux. And that is exactly what the seeds along with spices like blackpepper and cinnamon help pare down in a way that it doesn’t occur even after prolong time of fasting.”

One of the reasons that in ancient times Thandai was used to administer bhaang to soldiers going for battle or even patients recovering from surgery, given the fact that while this high calorie drink is digesting in the body, it is also taking care of the wear and tear of the body, especially the brain, which without food can agitate causing a barrage of issues.

You see, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “our brain operates mostly on soluble fat. In right quantity it not only functions well, which often is days when we are highly energetic, motivated, and usually happy, but also allows us to take care of untowardly situations of stress. But bereft of its energy, it can go into a tizzy of mismanagement, which includes a disparity in co-ordination of our limbs to a constant burst of anger, and the idea of feeling low.”

In traditional science, she continues, “the treatment for this is food that has fat, easily soluble food and spices like cardamom that can calm the mind. But food takes time to digest and hence beverages like Thandai comes as a more effective antidote that takes quicker to digest and assimilate.”

Of course, say the experts, “the kind of herbs and spices we use can make or break Thandai goodness and hence it needs to be done with care as a little too much of anything and this includes the nuts combination, or the use of dry fruits can upset the cart of goodness.”

But if you feel the need to add, says Bhassin, “try choosing a natural alternative like dates instead of sugar-coated dehydrated food, and replace processed sugar with mishri, which is known to aid digestion and keep the air track in shape for summers.”