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Indian and South-East Asian Beverages

by Nancy Freeman

Once upon a time, in the far-distant past, Hindu mythology tells us there was no such thing as immortality and the gods and demons lived and died just like human beings.

The gods and demons were not pleased with the situation so they sought the help of Vishnu, the greatest god of them all. Vishnu, the universal problem-solver, told them how together they could bring forward the amrita, the elixir of immortality.

So, the gods and demons took Ananta, the cosmic snake, and wrapped him around Mt. Meru, the cosmic mountain. Meanwhile Vishnu converted himself into a gigantic tortoise and dove into the cosmic sea to provide a firm foundation for the mountain. The gods lined up on one side and the demons on the other. Pulling up and back upon their mountain churning post, they brought forth the sweet amrita, drank and became immortal.

Now, whether you believe the tale or not is a matter of personal choice. But, there is no mistaking the fact that India and South-East Asia produce a number of delicious and life-giving beverages which provide refreshment in climates hot enough to dehydrate even the most cautious camel.

Tea and coffee, in their endless variety and subtlety, can be found across the board. But they represent a mere tip of the iceberg. For relatively few of these remarkable drinks are known outside of Asia.

Few appear with meals themselves. "The beverage most commonly consumed with meals is water," says caterer Niloufer Ichapouria, formerly of Bombay. But snacks can be either partially or entirely liquid.

India, the second largest country in the world, produces a vast number of drinks which vary from region to region. The best-known Indian liquid snack in the US is probably lassi, a yogurt mix which comes in either sweet or salty form. Flavoring agents differ in different parts of the country. More exotic drinks include falooda, which in North India consists of ice cream and noodles often flavored with syrup. In New Delhi it is a solid dish.

More widespread is lime water, known as limbu or nimbu parnee in different regions. Made with the juice of key limes, it appears in both sweet and salty forms. Depending on the region and the cook, the lime juice may be mixed with fresh water or soda or made into a syrup.

Lime is the principal ingredient in one of the most popular and refreshing drinks of Thailand. True to the Thai culinary tradition of balancing sweet, sour, salty and bitter, its limeade is sweetened, then enhanced with a touch of salt.

Vendors sell all kinds of fruit juices in Thai markets. Cheapest of these is guava, sold in plastic bags all over the market, according to Chai Aksomboom, owner of Siam Cuisine in Berkeley, California, and author of Thai Cooking (1556430744). Other juices include mango, pineapple and orange juice.

Specialized vendors sell sugar cane, palm, and young coconut juice, all of them favorite drinks throughout South-East Asia. Aung Aung Taik, author of The Best of Burmese Cooking (Chronicle Books, San Francisco; 1993; 220 pages; $11.95), explains that special presses crush the cane and the sweet juice is strained off and sold.

Chris Yeo, author of The Cooking of Singapore and owner of San Francisco's Straits Cafe, misses sugar cane water so much that when he goes home he races straight to the market for a glass.

Meanwhile, Tai Nguyen, owner of Oakland's Vi's restaurant, tells of Vietnamese fruit shakes made with condensed milk, fruit, sugar and ice which are sold by vendors. Among the most popular fruits used: mango, guava and avocado. Yes, avocado. If you have only used this fruit in salad and never had it sweetened as is common in South-East Asia, you just haven't lived.

Keith Dan, owner of San Francisco's Angkor Wat, tells of jasmine flower water. This concoction is made by steeping the flowers in water overnight and is drunk with meals as part of Cambodian royal cuisine. In addition to palm, sugar cane and coconut juice, Cambodians like to drink orange juice directly out of the fruit by rolling it around (to loosen the flesh and juice) and placing a straw in it. As for warm drinks, Dan speaks fondly of lemon grass tea.

Meanwhile, Filipinos, with their strong Spanish-via-Mexico influence, sip heavenly Mexican-style chocolate (pronounced "cho-co-lah-teh") with their mid-afternoon snacks or meriendas. Closer to their South-East Asian roots, Filipinos make ginger tea, which many South-East Asians see as a healthful tonic as well as a flavorful, spicy pick-me-up.

All of this makes me long for days past in South-East Asia -- the thick, sweet coffee of Indonesia, the dense chocolate of the Philippines drunk with sticky rice confections on a hot afternoon, the delicacy of young coconut meat scooped right out of the shell, its juice mixed with condensed milk on a rural Philippine isle. Amrita indeed.

North Indian Sweet Lassi
serves one
My mother, a yogurt lover though not necessarily an Indian food devotee, fell in love with this drink and found that it cured an upset tummy. Consider it for a delicious cure next time you're feeling a little under the weather.

3/4 cup good whole-milk yogurt
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon sugar (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon mango pulp (optional)*
1-2 pinches cardamom

Mix together the yogurt, water, sugar and mango pulp. Swirl the cardamom across the top.

*Available in Indian grocery stores in 30-ounce cans. Once you've used your tablespoon or two, the mango pulp keeps in the refrigerator in a plastic container for a week or two and in the freezer for much longer. It is delicious for drizzling over ice cream, serving with pancakes, making into a sorbet or a Vietnamese fruit shake (see below). Or perhaps you'll just get hooked on lassi.

North Indian Salty Lassi
serves one
Salt is not a flavor most westerners enjoy in a drink. But once you get a taste for it, the mix of yogurt, salt and cumin is delicious, particularly with a little heat.

1/8 teaspoon cumin seed
3/4 cup good whole-milk yogurt
1/4 cup water
1/8 teaspoon salt
ground cayenne pepper or other hot chili, to your taste

1. Toast cumin seeds in a hot skillet, stirring constantly until they release their aroma, being careful not to burn them.

2. Mix together the yogurt, water and salt. Sprinkle with cumin seed and hot pepper.

Vietnamese Avocado Shake
serves one
Tai Nguyen of Vi's warns that the Vietnamese like these drinks extremely sweet. Adjust the sugar to your taste. This is so thick you'll need a spoon and so rich you might decide to share it with a friend. If you use mango pulp, omit the sugar because the mango is already sweetened.

1 medium avocado
1/4 cup condensed milk
1 - 2 tablespoons sugar (to taste)
1 cup ice

Throw everything in a blender and process until consistency is smooth.

Thai Limeade
serves six to eight
This recipe, adapted from Jennifer Brennan's The Original Thai Cookbook, produces a concentrate which is poured over a generous serving of ice. Oil from the lime skins provides the intense flavor of this drink. Just be careful not to steep the rinds too long or the drink will be bitter.

6 fresh limes
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 cups boiling water
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ice cubes

1. Roll limes on a cutting board using hard pressure with your hand to loosen flesh and release juice easily.

2. Cut limes in half and squeeze juice, minus seeds and pith, into a jug. Reserve rinds.

3. Place rinds in another jug and cover with sugar. Pour in boiling water and allow to steep five to 10 minutes depending on your taste. Five minutes will be intensely limy; 10 will have a hint of bitterness. Add salt and stir thoroughly.

4. Strain warm liquid into juice. Add ice cubes and refrigerate. Serve over at least four additional ice cubes.

Salabat (Philippine Ginger Tea)
serve four or five
This recipe comes from Violeta Noriega's Philippine Recipes Made Easy. Try it on a cold, rainy night when you need something to warm your innards.

2-3 inches of fresh ginger, crushed
2 tablespoons brown sugar
4-5 cups water

Boil all ingredients together for seven-10 minutes. Serve hot.

Lemon Grass Tea
serves two or three
Keith Dan of Angkor Wat claims that lemon grass tea is good for hangovers. It is also simply a tasty, refreshing drink. Find the lemon grass at a Chinatown store or a market frequented by Asian shoppers.

1 bunch of lemon grass (six to eight stalks)
2 cups water

1. Cut bottom from stalks and discard. Remove any loose outer layer and upper end if it is brown or dry. Wash and dry. Cut stalks into one- to two-inch lengths and julienne.

2. Set julienned strips on a flat plate or basket in a warm dry place for a week or more to dry.

3. To brew, take a loose handful of lemon grass and place in a saucepan with two cups of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes. Strain into a kettle and serve.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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