Shikanji: The ‘cool’ queen of drinks

There is more in the glass of Indian Gatorade than just the delicious palate play that comes with the very first sip.

Summers in India has always been about Shikanji, says seasoned bartender Aman Dua, as he bruises the leaves of lemon, coats the rim, and drops it into a glass of a fragrant, lemony drink that most of us will instantly recognise as Shikanji. Or as Dua would put it: “A slightly more complex cousin of nimbu pani, the other summer favourite that is made by simply diluting lemon juice, sugar and salt in water. A good Shikanji needs a dash of spice, mint, and ginger juice to be called to Shikanji.”

Shikanji masala
The best part about the Shikanji is the fact that a variety of ingredients and flavours can be used to bump up both the nutritional and taste factors.
Image courtesy Karan Tripathi and aroma_portraits

Interestingly, Dua’s perception of Shikanji finds endorsement from seasoned chef, Pradeep Tejwani (Director, The Young Turks), who finds the drink “a much evolved and purpose-designed cousin to the simple nimbu pani.” Just think about the kind of ingredients that go into making of Shikanji, says Chef Tejwani, “which, unlike the simple nimbu pani, also has spices such as cumin, ginger (juices or slivers), mint and even uses chia seeds/sabja, black salt and, in a few cases, aamchur or pudina; all in a proportion that while giving the drink a rather happy palate play, also come with curative properties that are good for the body.”

Take the use of a different kind of salt in a Shikanji, which not only adds to sodium intake but also minerals – together creating this mineral boost that aids in the functioning of our larger muscles along with improving our electrolyte levels. Chef Tejwani finds a glass of Shikanji very effective at reigning in muscle cramps that are a common occurrence during summers courtesy the amount of water and minerals one loses by way of sweat. “More so, if you live in a high-humidity region, a glass of chilled Shikanji works like Gatorade, instantly cooling the body as well.”

Nimbu shikanji
According to Unani medicine, the origin of Shikanji was as Sikanjabeen, an antidote made with vinegar and honey as base and would use spices and herbs to enable holistic improvement.
Images courtesy Karan Tripathi and aroma_portraits

An effect that Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels) is all too familiar with. The beauty about Shikanji, explains Chef Dewan, “is that it is a versatile yet delicious way of not just cranking up nutrients but also reworking the digestive system especially the stomach for effective assimilation of food. Of course, the rehydrating and replenishing of water, minerals and vitamins, along with this cool, calming sense comes as an extra bonus with the drink.” In fact, adds Chef Tejwani, “such is the versatility of the different kinds of complementary flavours the drink can use that even traditionally, Shikanji is considered as a more elevated form of cool drink than the classic nimbu pani, which, given its simple composition, can be had many times.”

Fascinatingly, when it comes to the history of sherbets, Shikanji was more a drink that helped digestion while balancing the electrolyte levels in the body. According to Unani medicine, the origin of Shikanji was as Sikanjabeen, an antidote made with vinegar and honey as base and would use spices and herbs to enable holistic improvement of all the four humours in the body – and this included blood as well. Eventually, according to Unani expert Ibn Sina, who wrote the first definite book on Unani medicine in 1037CE, vinegar was replaced with fruits, especially lemon, which in character mirrors the work of a good vinegar, especially when it comes to Vitamin C, but also lining the stomach for better digestion of protein. Interestingly, it was the calming balance that water brought when combined with natural juices, especially citrusy fruits such as lemons, that made sherbets made of such souring fruits a common practice.

Shikanji summer drink
Such was the popularity of sherbets such as Shikanji, that royal kitchens often had separate sections for sherbet makers who worked with veds and hakims to perfect the drink.
Image courtesy Karan Tripathi and aroma_portraits

Ancient veds and hakims believed that water as a base not only pares down the leeching effect of concentrated fruit juices but also ensures you can have more of it without suffering adverse effects. A fact that made sherbets an integral part of dining – old texts suggest how sherbets were a precursor to a good feast. In medieval India, such cooling drinks made with flowers, fruits or cereals went either by the name of mahura or sharbat-e-labgir, which was had after invoking the name of a god. It was a belief that this drink would ensure that the food eaten thereafter is blessed and well received.

Such was the popularity of these sherbets, which in ancient India included a version made with lemon juice and sugar that had been matured under the sun for five days, that often, royal kitchens had an extra extension given to Sunhris or sherbet makers who worked alongside veds and hakims to perfect the drink that would work both as a pleasure dram and an antidote. Empress Nur Jahan’s famous sherbet made with rose water and khus was one such innovation; another was the Shikanji, which every serai perfected to treat their guests with.

Foodlore goes that the Shikanji inspired the original aerated drink called Goli Soda/Banta in the ’80s and ’90s, and was itself derived from the Persian sharbat-e-labgir served in the court of Gulbadan Begum as a summer coolant. It was also used as an ancient treatment of acidity down south. The practice was to cut a lemon in half, season a side with salt, rock salt, cumin powder, ginger powder, aamchur and hing, then secure both the halves with a toothpick and leave overnight for maturing. In the morning, the lemon that had absorbed the spices was squeezed into a glass of water, sweetened if needed, and had on an empty stomach.

This not only ensured that the stomach area was lined well against any possible acid reflux, but the warm spices ensured that the body went into a detox and replenish mode immediately. More than the taste, says Chef Dewan, “what contributed to Shikanji’s popularity is the effect that the drink led to. One would feel this instant coolness, the palate would rejuvenate thanks to the use of spices and there was this kind of refreshing feel that would help one restart work with vigour. In fact, Shikanji, given its digestive properties, became not only a summer beverage but also a popular digestive drink that would be had after a big meal or a feast – even during one as it helped cleanse the palate.”

Lemon drink
What Shikanji really does is aid the stomach in creating a digestive bubble that helps break down complex foods, especially proteins in meat.
Image courtesy Karan Tripathi and aroma_portraits

The thing about lemon drinks such as Shikanji, says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “is its ability to allow one to take in more spices and lemon juice, that otherwise would not be possible if one had to suck on a halved lemon or even have the spice mix as is; water mellows down their vigorous flavours. Secondly, water also provides that classic medium where these different elements can combine not just to create palate-pleasing flavours, but also work to elevate a certain nutrient for easy digestion and absorption in the body. Lemon juice, despite its level of acidity, works the system to avoid any acid reflux while supplying a handsome dose of vitamin C and other nutrients; cumin and ginger help warm the body up and calm the mind. These, in unison, also help bring down inflammations in the body.”

But most importantly, continues the nutritional expert, “what Shikanji really does is aid the stomach creates a digestive bubble that helps break down complex foods, especially proteins in meat. Lemon is known to break down proteins to a level that can aid enzymes to do the rest of the digestive work easier and faster.”

In fact, it is exactly what happens when a wedge of lemon is squeezed onto a piece of charred or cooked meat, say the chefs, “it not only changes the taste but that one squeeze ensures that the protein is broken – which Shikanji does better within the system.”

These are just a few of the virtues that have earned the lemony drink its reputation not just in Al-Qanun Fi Al-Tibb (the Canon of Medicine), which recommends it as a sherbet to be had before meals, but also in an American College of Physicians study that found Shikanji good for people with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, of course, when had in moderate quantities.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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