A Rose by Any Other Name

Apoorva Sripathi writes about Chennai's obsession with rose milk, and the history of this drink in the city. 

If you ask me, 90s nostalgia tastes like an overwhelmingly bright-coloured cordial and off-brand cheese; a blazing orange, resembling the setting sun. Somehow, the aching pink of laal sharbat and the brilliant crimson of Rooh Afza always eluded our dining table. But no other drink gave me a sugar rush like rose milk did.

My fondness for 90s nostalgia aside, rose milk is an excellent carrier for what often looks to be a ridiculous preparation: the falooda. Believed to have originated in Persia as the faloodeh, it combines vermicelli noodles in a sorbet-like mixture made of rose water and sugar. The new and improved falooda that we know today is a much heavier drink, leaning dangerously close to a dessert. It is believed to have been brought to Mumbai — where many iconic establishments such as Badshah Cold Drinks, Kyani & Co, Baba Falooda, serve the drink — in the 1940s by Iranis, when they set up their cafes.

But it isn't just falooda that rose milk has helped carry; a corner shop in my hometown of Chennai also owes its brand to the humble drink. The Kalathi Newspaper Mart in Mylapore, which opened its doors in 1927, has been making news as the place for delicious bubble gum-pink rose milk rather than a utility store, which is what it was intended to be. Since 1952, when Kalathi introduced rose milk (priced at 25 paise then), the shop has been a meeting point for nearby school students, theatre artistes, actors and food walk enthusiasts. K Mani, the third-generation owner informs me that although his business is brisker during the summer, the shop sees a steady stream of kutcheri-hopping customers gulping down rose milk or buying rose syrup by the bottle. 

I reach out to V Sriram, city historian and writer, to better understand the rosy history of this popular drink. "It is a Parsi drink, originating from falooda and consumed on their New Year (Navroz)," says Sriram, who is quick to disclaim that he isn't very fond of the drink himself. How rose milk made it to Chennai and to our numerous food establishments is quite a mystery but Sriram ventures a guess, that "the Parsis may have brought it with them. After all, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy had a Madras office even in the 1820s. Its key purpose was that it was considered a cooling drink."

The Parsis may well be our clue when it comes to rose milk — their initiation into the world of roses, rose essences, syrups and water begin from childhood. One of the first birthday rituals observed by Parsis include bathing a child in milk, roses and rose water. A number of Parsi ceremonies are unthinkable without rose water (or rose petals), and so are the community's desserts such as ravo, sev, falooda and the halva. Niloufer Ichaporia King's book, My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking, contains an index that explains the ubiquitousness of rose water and rose syrup in their dishes. She writes that rose water for Parsis has such "eons of ritual, symbolic and culinary importance" that only a few sweet dishes are not scented with it, and also that rose syrup is essential for falooda, their New Year drink.

Now, rose milk isn't just popular in India. It is a much sought after drink in other countries in south Asia, mostly as falooda — in Pakistan, it's a Ramzan favourite; in Malaysia and Singapore, the sirap bandung is a popular drink made with rose syrup, evaporated milk (or condensed milk) and ice; in Mauritius, a version of it called the alouda (although it replaces rose with vanilla essence); and in Thailand, the nam manglak which is a simple drink that combines water, crushed ice, basil seeds, and rose syrup. 

Image credit: Raksanand via WIkimedia Commons

Image credit: Raksanand via WIkimedia Commons

My research also leads me to Rakesh Raghunathan of Puliyogare Travels, who also attests to a Persian influence. He suggests that there might be a link to the Sultans of Mandu (the capital of Malwa), in the Nimatnama, a book of recipes left behind by them. Raghunathan says that some of the recipes like the samosas, which are essentially only meat-based in preparation as opposed to the many vegetarian variants of today, utilised rose water. "Meat was cooked in rose water and almonds," he says. Raghunathan mentions that cooling beverages in south India, however, go beyond rose milk, "There's neer mor and panagam…" but perhaps it is the availability of sharbat, and the fact that it is popular, made rose milk more commercial.

In fact, Sriram alludes its popularity in Chennai to the Madras Milk Suppliers Union formed in 1927, which marked the beginning of Aavin, which is the co-operative milk society of the Tamil Nadu government. "The Union led to the formation of the Central Dairy in 1963. With surplus milk becoming available, much of it was converted into rose milk and marketed. That made it a favourite," he says.

Today, a number of essences and cordials vie for attention in my refrigerator (with elderflower being my current favourite), but it is the luscious and perfumed rose milk I reach out for, which oddly enough, is the only one to satiate my sugary 90s nostalgia. Only because rose milk by another name wouldn't smell as sweet.

Apoorva Sripathi is a Chennai-based writer and amateur artist.
Banner image credit: Santhana Keerthi