The legend of Mohabbat e Sharbat

And how this rose tinted, watermelon laden milky drink conquered not just the imagination, but the heart and palates of people through India, chefs included.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Indian Accent

Earlier this month, when culinary maestro Chef Manish Mehrotra and his team at Indian Accent began working on their Ramazan menu, the thought behind was simple: to find the new in the traditional. Known for his famous takes on popular comfort food, one of Chef Mehrotra’s best creation of the menu is the Mohabbat Ka Sharbat or as it denizen of Matia Mahal will call Mohabbat e Sharbat. This rose-coloured cold drink is in fact a must- have coolant during summers, especially in the month of Ramazan, when this watermelon-milk and rose syrup beverage takes on a much fulfilling role as well. It is believed that this Old Delhi special was designed to not just quench the thirst and rehydrate the body after a day of fasting, but to also aid the process of digestion and keep the acid influx at bay when one feeds on food that is high on spices and is deep fried.

In that manner the role of this indigenously designed local drink is much like love which protects you from harm and still allow you to bloom to your full potential. This could be a reason why Nawab Qureshi who not only made the rosy drink famous but a standard practice during the holy month of Ramazan named his rose-syrup creation Mohabbat Ka Sharbat. Such was the popularity of this amazing beverage that scored high not only on its rich taste thanks to the milk and lightness courtesy the chunks of watermelon that soon the Nawab and his shop in the bylanes of Jama Masjid was called by the popular name of Pyaar Mohabbat Sharbat Wala, surpassing whatever assumption the sharbat maker had when he began the tiny shop a few years ago.

The drink recalls Chef Shantanu Mehrotra (Executive Chef, Indian Accent) was so popular that often Delhi summers and beverage came hand in hand, and it became ritual for many to visit the place just to indulge in this rather clever sharbat that took the two most widely available ingredient and turned into something of an elixir. Don’t believe us try having one on a sunny afternoon, continues Chef Mehrotra, who inspite of developing a recipe that is inch close to the original often finds ruses to visit the place for a glass or two. “Fascinatingly,” recalls the culinary head, “for most of us, Mohabbat Ka Sharbat wasn’t just an introduction to the fact that milk and a high on water fruit could go together, the drink also got most of us our first (and lasting) rendezvous with our other summer obsession called Rooh Afza – the dark red coloured concentrate that was our childhood version of ‘Glucon D’ and of cold drink. One glass full of diluted Rooh Afza topped with ice, little black salt and a squeeze of lime was all you needed to feel refreshed after a heavy game under the sun. The milky version was of course a step up, almost gourmet.”

Incidentally, the fondness for Hamdard’s Rooh Afza became one of the keys to Mohabbat Ka Sharbat’s success too. What added to its claim of being good for health was the sheer number of ingredients in the herbal syrup. According to Hamdard Laboratories (India), the Indian version of Rooh Afza (yes, there is one in Pakistan and another in Bangladesh l) contains of the following:  lily, lotus, blue star water lily, mint, carrot and spinach, watermelon, citron, strawberries, orange, raspberry, loganberry, blackcurrant, and cherry, concord grapes, lemon, rose, orange, and vetiver to name a few. Thus, turning it into one of those magical antidotes that hakims made for their emperor and empresses to keep them in good health minus the bitter taste. In fact, the tradition of the sharbat from such herbal concentrates date back to the early centuries of dynasty where a team of ved, hakims and astrologers would work in sync to design these potions that did everything from keeping the emperor and his entourage calm to even assist with their illness and give them a long, illness free life. In fact, the gardens in front of the Maristan in Fatehpur Sikri, the icehouse stand testimony to how important a task was sharbat making. It was a sharbat that came to rescue when Empress Nur Jahan tried weaning the Emperor off his habit of drinking; it was Khus Ka Sharbat that would be in demand when the court observed a festival or fasting. And the one drink that almost attained royal status was the Gulab ka Sharbat. A fragrant, light on the palate drink it would be known as much for its colour and delicate taste that came from the syrup as it would be for the way it was served. Legend has it that it was one of the few drinks that would be experimented hugely with – and often laid the foundation for others to fall in line, including a sweet Gur Ka Sharbat. However, what gave Mohabbat Ka Sharbat its edge was not just the rosy tinge that made it acutely attractive to the eye, but also its ability to cool instantly, and that “refreshing feeling that follows.”

It is these emotions that came to work at the Indian Accent’s storyboard when Chef Manish Mehrotra and team decided to give own take on the classic dish. Thus, came about the icecream version of it, where instead of filling the glass with cold milk, it is turned into a hand-churned icecream that has watermelon in it, which, admits Chef Shantanu, “was one of the trickier things to accomplish because a sweet watermelon would be as juicy. The solution was to puree the watermelon in the traditional way thus giving us enough pulp to perk up the icecream that tasted much like the sharbat, and is then drizzled with Rooh Afza. The block of watermelon  on which the scoop is served completes the dish.” The beauty of the dessert is that even when it is in true Indian Accent style presentation, the taste, concludes, says Chef Shantanu, “in every bite is one that can teleport you to the bylane of Jama Masjid when a glass of Mohabbat Ka Sharbat was all you needed to feel “cool”.  

The thing about classic, culinary archivist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai had once said, “is the fact that they aren’t just the perfect combination when it comes to taste but also are effective in bringing forth the goodness – by which I mean wellness primarily – of both the key ingredients and the flavorants as well.” An excellent example of this is the iconic Mohabbat e Sharbat, even in its modern version, it delivers the coolness and comfort.