Thandai ठंडाई as it is known in Hindi, is a festive drink, creamy thanks to full fat milk, rich thanks to an assortment of nuts, aromatic thanks to rose petals (or yellow marigold which is used in some regions such as Braj), cooling thanks to ingredients such as melon seeds, refreshing as it’s usually served chilled and intensely flavorful thanks to sweeteners as well as an orchestra of spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and fennel. A wholesome beverage rich in flavor and culture, it is often served on the Hindu festivals of Maha Shivarathri and Holi.
Maha Shivarathri मह शिवरात्रि is a Hindu festival dedicated to Lord Shiva (“maha” मह = “great”, “Shiva” शिव = “(Lord) Shiva” and “rathri” रात्रि = “night”) who, according to Hindu legend, on this special day saved the world from a pot of highly toxic poison that emerged from the ocean.
Devotees would observe fast (known as “vrat” व्रत in Hindi) on this auspicious day when after sunset of Maha Shivarathri day, no meals would be consumed until sunrise the next day after performing a special religious prayer known as a “pooja” पूजा.
While some opt for a full fasting, abstaining from consuming even a drop of water, for some this avenue is not an option for reasons such as illness or old age. In such situations, non-cereal, nutritious dishes of milk, fruits and water are prepared. This rich, creamy “thandai” is one such example. It is believed that Lord Shiva liked this milky drink, and on this auspicious occasion, the creamy beverage is sometimes spiked with “bhang” भांग which is an edible form of cannabis.
Although treated as a narcotic drug and is punishable by law to hoard and consume, this law is temporarily lifted in countries which celebrate this festival such as India and Nepal where holy men would be allowed to smoke it to imitate Lord Shiva.
According to legend, Lord Shiva had saved the world from the pot of poison by holding the toxic substance in his throat. This made him turn blue and generated substantial heat inside. Efforts to cool Lord Shiva were numerous, and one of them was calming him down with “bhang”.
Thandai (sometimes laced with “bhang” in some areas of India, particularly Varanasi, formerly known as Banaras, which is India’s thandai hub) is also a traditional beverage consumed during the Hindu festival of Holi. Also known as the “festival of colors” or the “festival of love”, Holi is a spring festival which celebrates the passing of winter and the arrival of spring and is celebrated amidst a highly charged atmosphere of vibrant colors, showering petals of fragrant rose and marigold, wild laughter and joyful play.
With temperatures rising in India with the arrival of spring, thandai, which is believed to have cooling properties, helps the body combat heat and so it is a tradition for festive merrymakers to drink refreshing, chilled Holi thandai to cool themselves down.
The name of this cooling beverage “thandai” ठंडाई literally means “coolant” in Hindi, and that word in turn is a derivative of the Hindi word “cool” which is “thanda” ठंडा.
Certain ingredients in thandai such as fennel (“saunf” सौंफ), saffron (“kesar” केसर), poppy seeds (“khus khus” खसखस), melon seeds (“karabhooje ke beej” खरबूजे के बीज, “karabhooje” खरबूजे = “melon”, “beej” बीज = “seeds”) and rose petals (“gulab ki phankudiyan” गुलाब की पंखुड़ियाँ, “gulab” गुलाब = “rose” “phankudiyan” पंखुड़ियाँ = “petals”) are believed to be “cooling” while black pepper is believed to help ward off cold-related infections.
Bhang thandai (or “bhang ki thandai” भांग की ठंडाई in Hindi) however must be consumed with caution, as an overdose could have negative consequences.
Although thandai is particularly popular in northern India (where the country’s thandai hub, Varanasi is located) the drink is relished in other states as well.
Like most dishes throughout India, thandai recipes vary region to region and from family to family with perhaps the only commonality among all recipes being fresh whole milk (known as “doodh” दूध in Hindi), a combination of nuts (usually almonds, cashews, pistachios) and a combination of spices traditionally ground in a traditional Indian stone grinder known as a “sil batta” सिल बट्टा.
Some recipes add cashews, some add pistachios, some add both. Some add fennel, some others add freshly ground black peppercorns (“kailee mirch” काली मिर्च), some have cinnamon (“dalachini” दालचीनी), some have green cardamom (“elaichi” इलायची) and some have saffron.
Some like their thandai thick while some prefer a more runny consistency.
Unlike in the West where there is a growing preference for skimmed milk / 2% fat etc, in India, milk is generally consumed whole, i.e. full fat and all. And it has been that way for generations in India which is the largest milk producing nation in the world. Most of India’s milk production is from buffaloes with cow’s milk coming in second.
Unlike in the United States where milk is produced in organized, large-scale dairy farms and the animals are milked through mechanical means, in India over half of the country’s milk is produced from free-roaming buffaloes and cows who are patiently hand-milked by small farmers in rural Indian villages.
While most modern recipes use refined sugar to prepare thandai, the following recipe uses honey (“shehad” शहद), which is significantly healthier and more flavorful than refined sugar. It is possible to add jaggery (an unrefined form of sugar known as “gur” in Hindi) however it may result in a untraditionally dark brown colored drink (when it’s traditionally a pale yellow or pale green if “bhang” is added).
1 1/2 litres or about 6 cups fresh whole milk
4-5 tablespoons almonds – soaked overnight
2 tablespoons cashew nuts
1 tablespoon poppy seeds – soaked overnight
2 tablespoons melon seeds – soaked overnight
3/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
4-6 green cardamom pods – husks discarded, seeds retained
1/2 cup or as desired honey
3/4 cup spring water
1 teaspoon rose water or 3/4 teaspoon dried rose petals or 1/2 teaspoon fresh rose petals plus a few more garnishing
A few strands saffron
1/2 – 2/3 cup pistachios – crushed
Drain off water from all three soaked ingredients. Peel almonds.
Into a heavy-bottom sauce pan, pour milk and add honey. Stir well.
Bring to a boil over medium heat.
Stop heat and set aside to cool.
Crush peeled almonds, poppy seeds, melon seeds, cashew nuts, fennel seeds, peppercorns, green cardamom seeds and rose petals (if using) into a rich paste. For grinding needs such as this, ancient Indian kitchens feature a traditional grinding tool known as a “sil batta” सिल बट्टा.
Add 1/4 cup of water and rose water (if using) and grind further to a smooth paste.
Add the ground paste to the milk-honey mixture and mix well.
Cover and let it sit for about 15-20 minutes.
Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth.
Set the strained milk aside.
Add 1/2 cup water to the residue and grind again.
Strain this mixture through a cheesecloth.
Add the strained liquid to the previously strained milk.
Add saffron strands and give a quick stir.
Chill in the refrigerator for at least 3-4 hours to allow the flavors to develop.
Pour into glasses.
Garnish with crushed pistachios, slivered almonds, a few saffron strands and rose petals. Serve chilled.