NEW DELHI (AFP) – Pakistan and India have fought three wars and maintained an old and violent conflict, yet when the summer heat arrives, their people share the same passion for a dark pink syrup whose recipe has been hidden since the age of 115.
‘Ruh Afza’, meaning ‘refreshment of the soul’ in Urdu, is a syrupy combination of herbs, fruits, vegetables, flowers and roots that not only survived the 1947 partition, but prospered on both sides of the border.
In Old Delhi, overwhelmed by the scorching heat, Firoza, Roh Afzar’s street vendor, piled up a block of ice that a motorcyclist delivered to him in a large metal container.
With his knife, the 50-year-old, whose nose is adorned with gold gems, opens the bottle of Ruh Afzar and pours the dark pink sherbet on the ice before adding milk and watermelon pieces.
“Drink of love”
This is his specialty called “Sharbat e Mohabbat” or “Love Drink” which he sells for 20 rupees (25 cents). Each seller offers their version.
“We use more than 12 bottles of Ruh Afza and 20 cartons of milk a day, sometimes 30 or even 40 when business is good,” he told AFP in a hoarse voice.
“I started this business about ten years ago when my husband died,” she says. “She started selling Ruh Afza here 40 or 50 years ago. It’s my only source of income.”
In Pakistan, the drink is especially admired during the month of Ramadan, when it is used as an alcohol-free aperitif with the celebration of Iftar, at sunset, when Muslim faithful break the fast.
The syrup is used in desserts and creams but is especially served in milk or water, in hot seasons when the temperature usually reaches its peak. Last month, the thermometer in Pakistan read up to 50 degrees Celsius.
Muhammad Akram’s popular stall, Ruh Afza and money are flowing in Karachi’s megacity.
“A homeless man once suggested that I mix Ruh Afza with watermelon cubes,” he told AFP. “The taste is wonderful.”
“It calms the mind”
His employee Abdul Kahar works twelve hours a day and leads a team of twelve waiters who deliver Ruh Afza mugs, decorated with a straw and overflowing with ruby-colored watermelon slices, enhanced with a date.
“It calms the mind,” said Neelam Farid, a 25-year-old housewife who traveled five kilometers on a moped with her husband to take a drink sample.
Ruh Afza first appeared in 1907, in Old Delhi, in the old crowded heart of the Indian capital. Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majid, a doctor from Unani, said that the medicinal drink, made by traditional Indian medicine, is believed to prevent heatstroke and dehydration.
In 1947, during the partition of British India, one of his sons remained in India and the other took the road to newborn Pakistan.
They established Hamdard Bharat and Hamdard Pakistan with factories in every country including East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh after the bloody war of independence in 1971.
Hamid Ahmed, the founder’s great-grandson, owner of an Indian company, confirmed that the original and confidential recipe had never changed in 115 years of existence.
“It’s a big mystery, ignored by factory workers (…) I think only three people know it,” the 45-year-old laughed at AFP.
Served with ice, the syrup is even more appreciated during the “Lu” period, in Hindi it qualifies for a hot air with sandy dust blowing north of the subcontinent.
South Asia has a growing trend of intense heat waves, which scientists have blamed on climate change, so there is still a bright future ahead for the sympathetic companies.
“Ruh Afza is not ready to disappear”, Mr. Ahmed Anandit, “Sales are increasing”.
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