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In India, a deep red drink is at the heart of summer

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

On a hot summer day, what's better than some ice-cold lemonade? Many people in South Asia say they have a contender, and it's a drink they say refreshes the soul. You might look for it in your nearest South Asian grocery store. Reporter Sushmita Pathak got hers on the crowded streets of Old Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CRUSHING)

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: It's a hot, humid afternoon, and Abdul Wahid is hacking at a big block of ice with a knife. The ice sits in a pool of a deep red liquid. As chunks of the ice break off, Wahid pours me a glass.

Thank you. This is so cool and refreshing. It has a very sweet, floral taste, and it's not like anything I've ever had before.

ABDUL WAHID: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: "This is the life of the summers. It's the pride of the summers," goes the announcement at Wahid's stall. The drink is called Rooh Afza, Urdu for soul rejuvenator, and it is South Asia's go-to summer beverage.

MARRYAM RESHII: The sound of the summer birds and the taste of Rooh Afza - you know, it just transports me. I just love Rooh Afza.

PATHAK: Food critic Marryam Reshii has been having Rooh Afza since the 1960s, when her family first came to Delhi. But Rooh Afza is much older. It was created in 1907 by Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed, a traditional medicine practitioner, to beat Delhi's scorching heat.

HAMID AHMED: So sugar is an ingredient. There is 10 herbs, and that provides the basic nature of the product, which is to cool the body down.

PATHAK: That's Hamid Ahmed, Majeed's great-grandson, who now runs the India food division of the company called Hamdard. There's also a Hamdard Pakistan, established by Ahmed's granduncle. Rooh Afza is the company's star product.

AHMED: So Rooh Afza still is around 60% of Hamdard in India. Nine hundred million glasses of Rooh Afza are consumed every year in India.

PATHAK: Nine hundred million glasses every year. There's also a fizzy variant, a sugar-free version and a Rooh Afza milkshake.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVEYOR BELT WHIRRING)

PATHAK: At the Hamdard factory near Delhi, cartons of bottles are moving up a conveyor belt and into a truck.

AHMED: During peak season, there are around 20 to 25 trucks of Rooh Afza going out of factory every single day.

PATHAK: And if you want any more proof of Rooh Afza's popularity, just ask the vendor Abdul Wahid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE DROPPING IN LIQUID)

PATHAK: His stall in Old Delhi has been in his family for three generations.

WAHID: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: "Those who have Rooh Afza once always come back," he says. One customer says she gets a Rooh Afza whenever she's in the neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED CUSTOMER: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: Her friend says her family breaks their Ramadan fast with Rooh Afza and dates.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: A few feet away, there's a stall selling a special drink - milk, watermelon juice and Rooh Afza. It's called Sharbat-e-Mohabbat, the drink of love. But the vendor, Sandeep, says he himself isn't fond of Rooh Afza.

SANDEEP: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: After mixing it all day, he doesn't really care for it, he says. He's not alone. Rooh Afza has its fair share of haters. Some people find it too sweet and consider it unhealthy. It is also up against a lot of competition from other drinks. But food critic Marryam Reshii says Rooh Afza has endured.

RESHII: Any product has ups and downs, but this thing is something that has weathered all storms.

PATHAK: Reshii had to cut down her Rooh Afza indulgence 10 years ago when she was diagnosed with diabetes. Since then, she says, summers are just not the same anymore. For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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