The Story Behind Thandai, the Drink of Choice During Holi

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It’s a saffron and cardamom-infused drink that’s become synonymous with Indian celebration.

Every celebration in India is an almost sensory assault of never-ending colors, music, and plenty of refreshments. And Holi, the festival of colors that welcomes spring in all its glory, is no exception as bright colors adorn every house. However, the true soul of any celebration in India is the food. During Holi, the preferred choice of beverage is thandai, especially in North India. Thandai is not only a fun drink, it is also extremely beneficial for health. It regulates body temperature, and boosts immunity. The drink is rich in antioxidants and offers much-needed relief from the blistering heat—along with the water gun (or pichkari) fights that are sure to start amid the color throwing.

Gujiya on a platter with glasses of Thandai milk
Courtesy Unsplash

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The saffron-tinted drink, that has its roots in the spiritual city of Varanasi (formerly Benaras) is arguably one of the oldest drinks in the country—believed to have been an offering to the Hindu deity, Lord Shiva—and dating back to 1000 B.C. A glass of thandai (the drink is packed with almonds, fennel seeds, watermelon kernels, rose petals, pepper, poppy seeds, cardamom, milk, and saffron) is usually accompanied by enormous platters of sweets, like gujiyas (fried pastry filled with thickened milk or khoya and dried fruits), malpua (a sweet pancake dipped in sugar syrup), and the popular laddoo (flour, semolina, or gram flour-based sweet that sometimes contains chopped nuts). Tureens of savory snacks are also passed around—from the more robust and savoury papdi chaat (fried crispies topped with boiled potatoes, chickpeas, chutneys, and pomegranate seeds), to dahi vada or bhalla (lentil fritters topped with curd, chutneys, and crispies) and samosa chaat (deconstructed samosas topped with chutneys).

A slice of thandai cheesecake
Courtesy Unplugged Courtyard

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Recently, restaurants have added a modern spin to this classic drink. Executive chef Ratan KD of Unplugged Courtyard in Kolkata—who is from Uttar Pradesh, said, “Holi is incomplete without the quintessential thandai.” This year, he reimagined his dessert menu to include thandai-infused sweets.

“I decided to create a thandai-inspired dessert that is rich, creamy, and an apt representation of the drink in a cheesecake. The cheesecake is made with in-house thandai mixture (the spice mix), pistachio sponge, gulkand (an Indo-Persian sweet rose preserve) mousse, dehydrated rose petals, and a pistachio crumble that packs in a seriously aromatic flavor profile,” he said. Although he’s still serving his classic thandai this year, the cheesecake is an absolute revelation.

Although he’s still serving his classic thandai drink this year, the cheesecake is an absolute revelation. Either way, thandai is an essential element of Holi—whether it’s sipped as a beverage between water gun and color fights—or repurposed into a revelatory dessert.