NEW DELHI – Its original recipe, over a century old, is hidden in highly secure, temperature-controlled family archives in the Indian capital.
But the sweet summer cooler Rooh Afza, with a poetic name which means “refreshing soul” and evokes the narrow streets of its birthplace of old Delhi, has long crossed the scorching borders of South Asia to quench the thirst of generations.
In Pakistan, thick, pink-colored syrup – called sharbat or sherbet and poured from a distinctive long-necked bottle – is mixed with milk and crushed almonds as an offering in religious processions.
In Bangladesh, a newly married couple often gives their in-laws a bottle or two. The movies even invoke her as a metaphor: in a movie, the hero tells the heroine that she is beautiful like Rooh Afza.
And in Delhi, where summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the city looks like a slow-burning oven, you can find it everywhere.
The cold drink is served in the plastic cups of the cool drink vendors use new tricks to compete for customers – how high and how quickly they can throw the concentrate from glass to glass as they blend, how much they can pour over the rim of the mug.
The same old taste is also present in new packaging to appeal to a new generation and new drinkers: in the juice boxes of children’s school bags, in the inexpensive disposable sachets hung on the tobacco stalls frequented by the workers, and in the shops. upscale restaurants. where it’s whipped in the latest offering of ice cream.
As summer heat waves worsen, the drink’s reputation as a natural fruit and herbal cooler that lowers body temperature and increases energy – four-fifths is sugar – means that even a brief interruption in production results in huge outcry over a shortage.
Behind the drink’s survival, through decades of violence and regional unrest since its invention, hides the ambition of a young herbalist who died prematurely and the foresight of his wife, the matriarch of the family, to help his young sons to transform the drink into a sustainable business. .
The drink generates around $ 45 million in profit a year in India alone, according to its maker, most of which goes to a trust that funds schools, universities and clinics.
“It may be that one ingredient or a few ingredients have changed due to availability, but overall the formula has remained the same,” said Hamid Ahmed, a fourth generation member of the family who runs the Hamdard’s enlarged food wing. Laboratories, which produces the drink.
In the summer of 1907 in Old Delhi, still under British rule, the young herbalist, Hakim Abdul Majid, searched for a potion that could help alleviate many of the complications associated with the unbearable heat of the country – heat stroke, dehydration, diarrhea. .
What he discovered, by mixing sugar and herbal and flower extracts, was less of a medicine and more of a refreshing sherbet. It was a success. The bottles, glass then and plastic now, would fly off the shelves of his small pharmacy, which he named Hamdard.
Mr. Majid died 15 years later, at the age of 34. He is survived by his wife, Rabea Begum, and his two sons; one was 14 years old and the other a toddler. Ms Begum made a decision that made Hamdard a lasting force and laid out a plan to keep it profitable for its welfare efforts at a time when politics tore the country apart.
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She declared Hamdard a trust, with her and her two young sons as trustees. Profits would not go to the family but largely to public welfare.
The company’s biggest test came with the bloody partition of India after it gained independence from the British in 1947. The Muslim nation of Pakistan was separated from India. Millions of people have endured the arduous trek, on foot and on crowded trains, to get to the correct side of the border. Somewhere between a million and two million people died and families – including Ms Begum’s – were separated.
Hakim Abdul Hamid, the eldest son, remained in India. He became a famous scholar and supervised Hamdard India.
Hakim Mohamad Said, the youngest son, moved to the newly formed Pakistan. He gave up his role in Hamdard India to launch Hamdard Pakistan and produce Rooh Afza there. He became governor of Pakistan’s Sindh province, but was assassinated in 1998.
When in 1971 Pakistan was also split into two, with Bangladesh becoming another country, the facilities producing Rooh Afza in those territories formed their own trust: Hamdard Bangladesh.
The three businesses are independent, run by extended members, or friends, of the young herbalist’s family. But what they offer is largely the same taste, with slight variations if the climate in some areas affects the herbs differently.
The drink sells well during the summer, but demand is especially high during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Around the dinner table, or in bazaars at the end of a day, a glass or two of chilled Rooh Afza – the scent of its sugar and flavor – can breathe life into it.
“During the summer, after a long, hot day of fasting, you are more thirsty than hungry,” said Faqir Muhammad, 55, porter in Karachi, Pakistan. “To break the fast, I drink a glass of Rooh Afza directly after eating a piece of date to regain energy.”
In Bangladesh, brand marketing goes beyond flavor and refreshment and into the realms of the improbable and the metaphysical.
“Our experts say that Rooh Afza helps patients infected with Covid-19, helps eliminate their physical and mental weakness,” said Amirul Momenin Manik, deputy director of Hamdard Bangladesh, without offering any scientific evidence. “A lot of people in Bangladesh have divine feelings when they drink Rooh Afza because we call it a halal drink. “
During a visit to the Rooh Afza Indian factory in April, which coincided with Ramadan, workers in full protective gowns produced 270,000 bottles a day. The sugar, boiled in huge vats, was mixed with fruit juices and the distillation of more than a dozen herbs and flowers, including chicory, rose, white water lily, sandalwood and wild mint.
At the rear loading dock, from dawn to dusk, two trucks at a time were loaded with over 1,000 bottles each and sent to warehouses and markets across India.
Mr Ahmed – who heads the food division of Hamdard, for which Rooh Afza remains the central product – is trying to expand a mature brand with ramifications to attract consumers who have moved away from sherbet in their teens and early years. ‘adulthood. New products include juice boxes that mix Rooh Afza with fruit juice, Rooh Afza yogurt drink and Rooh Afza milkshake.
A survey conducted by the company showed that half of Rooh Afza in Indian households is consumed as a flavoring in milk, the rest in cold drinks.
“We did our milkshake tour,” Mr. Ahmed said, “which is Rooh Afza, milk and vanilla.”
The milkshake “worked extremely well,” Ahmed said. But he is proud of two products in particular. One is a sugar-free version of the original Rooh Afza, made for 15 years as the company searched for the right sugar substitute. More than twice the price of the original, it targets a more affluent segment.
“There is a growing market, for runners, for athletes, for those who watch what they eat and drink,” said Ahmed, himself a runner.
The other product comes from the realization that the original Rooh Afza, with all its sugar and flavor, still has vast untapped potential in the huge Indian market. It targets those who can’t afford the 750 milliliter bottle, which sells for $ 2, offering unique sachets that sell for 15 cents – a strategy that has revolutionized the reach of shampoo brands in India.
In large areas of India, the reality of malnutrition is such that sugar is welcome.
“People in India actually want sugar,” Ahmed said. “It’s only the subways that know what diabetes is.
Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting from Karachi, Pakistan, and Julfikar Ali Manik from Dhaka, Bangladesh.