At least once a month, while I was a high school student living at home in New Jersey, I'd hear the garage door open and a honk. That was cue for my brother and me: My parents had returned from their trip to Costco and they needed our help to resettle the items they'd purchased. I'd grumble because I was just starting to make some progress on my algebra homework, but I was secretly thrilled to get away from the numbers (I mean, give my loving parents a hand).
The package I remember most vividly was the one that held 3 half-gallon cartons of organic milk, because A) my parents always bought three of them (nine half-gallons total), and B) there was a dance associated with it. (I mean that as a figure of speech, not an actual dance — sorry to disappoint.)
Lightly sweet organic milk tastes most like the dairy my mom grew up drinking; it's my preferred option for whipping up these 4 milky drinks | (Julia Gartland/Courtesy Food52)
One carton went in the upstairs fridge for immediate use, while the two unwrapped cartons went in the basement fridge door; I'd lay the entirety of the still-wrapped second and third packages flat, right above the crisper. Organic milk has a longer shelf-life, so believe it or not, it never outlasted our needs. And in the rare moments of dearth between those Costco trips, my father would buy a holdover gallon at the same convenience store he bought the Mega Million lottery tickets in.
All of this milk was necessary because we are a family of dairy-loving Indians. In fact, milk is India's largest crop; according to the Economic Times, it contributes to 20 percent of the entire world's dairy production. But I don't need statistics to know that milk is a huge deal in India. I only need to peek into my parents' fridge.
When I was growing up, my mother called on milk to fix a variety of ailments, from insomnia to the common cold. Black tea without hot milk is unheard of in her household; coffee, too, is inconceivable if it's even a shade darker than dry sand. When I asked my mother why she always bought organic instead of regular, she said it was because the taste reminded her of the milk she grew up drinking in India. To her, it's irreplaceable — and I guess I agree, since I always seem to know when I'm running low by instinct, without needing to ask my roommate to confirm.
As a toast to my family's love of milky drinks — you'll see below that it goes way beyond tea, coffee, and a cold remedy — I've gathered four recipes that are, in my opinion, true elixirs. When I make them, it feels like I am brewing up potions — a pinch of spice here and a drizzle of Rooh Afsa (a very robust rose syrup) there — with results that are often brightly colored or distinctly fragrant. And when I drink them, the rewards are multiplied, because these drinks are sweet, fresh, rich, and thoroughly evocative (blame the distinctive smell of these spices) all at once.
You'll see signs advertising "cutting chai" all over Mumbai, because this roadside stall drink fuels the dynamic metropolis; people generally drink it two to three times a day. There are as many ways to make chai as there are people in India — just kidding, but there are many ways! What it boils down to is milk, black tea, sugar, and, in most (but not all) cases, spices like cardamom and ginger.
"Cutting" refers to its small stature — a portion is usually no bigger than a half-cup. Still, the richness and flavors (cardamom and ginger definitely, other spices are optional) don't make it seem so small spiritually. As a South Indian, I'm more partial to coffee, which is why I decided to combine the two in this drink, borrowing the "dirty chai" terminology I see applied to tea-coffee drinks in the U.S. It's almost like a milky, sweet, spiced espresso shot, which sort of makes no sense, but you'll take my word for it once the post-dirty cutting chai energy jolt kicks in.
2. Masala milk
While nut milks as we know them in the U.S. have yet to take off successfully in India, what we have had for hundreds of years is nutty milk (as in, ground nuts mixed into and warmed in milk). Badam milk, which literally translates to "almond milk," is popular throughout the peninsula, but I like its even richer sister, masala milk, which incorporates almonds, cashews, and pistachios. Saffron, not turmeric, gives this drink its bright yellow hue.
You want to make this in a huge quantity, 1) because this can be enjoyed hot or chilled, and 2) because that's just how it's made in India. In Chennai, there's a beachside location of the worldwide chain restaurant Saravana Bhavan where my family and I often drive, post-dinner, to enjoy glasses of the stuff straight from the giant vat in which it is made (right outside the entrance). In Maharastra, it is associated with a holiday called Kojagiri Purnima, in which observers stay up all night — the holiday is always on a full moon — to commemorate the end of the rainy season. While I've never celebrated this holiday myself, I'd have no qualms about pulling an all-nighter if it meant I got to drink multiple glasses of this extremely satisfying drink.
Ah, falooda: the magnificent, high maintenance, completely-worth-the-fuss drink that turns heads. Every element, including the basil seeds (which expand and make the drink jelly-like), vermicelli (which adds a nice, surprising texture), the quenelle of ice cream on top, and most notably, the shocking pink rose syrup that runs through it all, is a showstopper.
The best falooda I've ever had was outside the long pathway to the Haji Ali — a mosque that looks like it emerged from the middle of the sea — in Mumbai. But to be honest, even the falooda I had at a little Indian food court in Edison, New Jersey, was pretty good. It's a drink I'm more likely to order at a cafe than make at home, because I rarely have vermicelli at home, but I sometimes make a lazy version of this recipe with just milk, chia seeds (which I prefer to basil seeds because they're widely available and provide more of a gelled texture), and Rooh Afsa, a concentrated fruit and herb syrup with the primary taste of rose (you can find it at any Indian or Pakistani grocery store).
Milkshakes are, hands down, my favorite beverage — if not food group — in the world. They are followed closely by Alphonso mangoes, which are difficult to find outside of India. (Nevertheless, I've never met a mango I didn't like.) However, this recipe skips what's arguably the best part of a milkshake — ice cream! And guess what? It's still amazing; better, even, than if it did have ice cream, because mango itself is so rich that it doesn't need the ice cream's help to lend weight.
This recipe comes from an old Parsi (Indian-Zoroastrian) cookbook called Jamva Chaloji. The author, Katy Dalal, has a recipe for something called "Cold Milk," which has milk, sugar, ground pistachios, vanilla extract, cardamom, and nutmeg. Intrigued as I was, my eyes shifted to a different recipe for something that was actually what it sounded like: Mango Milkshake, which only has mango, milk, and sugar, to taste. I drink it like I would a smoothie, either for breakfast or a post-workout drink, but I can't think of an occasion where such a simple, humble mix of ingredients wouldn't fly. (Even off season, you could make this with frozen mangoes.)
This story was originally published on Food52.com: 4 milky Indian elixirs to soothe & sweeten your day.