Colas and smoothies notwithstanding, there's nothing to beat the popularity of the simple ‘shikanjee'
In this sweltering heat just water is of little help. Something more is needed for parched throats these days. That is when the streets of Delhi come to the rescue. Shikanjee, that timeless desi lemon drink with mild spices, is very popular and easily available on the streets. If you are into the lemon experience ask any Delhiite and you are likely to hear the name of Pandit Ved Prakash Lemon Wale in Town Hall, Chandni Chowk.
Co-owner Chand Bihari (Cheeni Bhai for the regular customers) claims that they are the oldest and most popular “lemon wale” in Delhi. “People from all over the world come here to try our drink. We are mentioned in tourist guides and food brochures.” The teeming crowd at the shop gives weight to his claim. “April to May are the busiest months; the rest of the year business is slower. But this is our family business, this is what we do. Everything from the lemon masala to the lemon water is produced by us,” he says. The “lemon water”, which comes in green tinged, Codd-neck bottles, with a marble placed as stopper, is locally known as ‘banta'. It is produced in a factory run by his brother, Shankar.
The shop was started by his grandfather in the 1870s. At that time the drink was served in earthen pots, known in Hindi as kullhar. “Machines have changed a lot of things. In my grandfather's time the drink was made and buried underground with ice to cool it. The ice was not like today, machine made. It was kept underground and used to last for months. This factory made ice doesn't last that long.”
Cheeni bhai shrugs off the nostalgia with a shake of his head and continues with the story. “Times have changed. Today many people want disposable glasses and all. We change with the times; we give what the people want.”
Things have changed but some things are evergreen. The production methods of shikanjee may have changed but it is still as popular, and no soft drink has been able to replace it. A glass of the drink costs between Rs.8 and 10. It is available in a glass as well as disposable cups.
The greatest testament to the drink's popularity is that people are ready to wait for it rather than get something else. “This is my favourite drink in summers. I have been coming here since I was a child,” a regular customer tells us.
Pandit Ved Prakash's popularity cuts across class barriers. “I come here regularly. Everyone comes here. It is a very famous place,” says the rickshaw puller who got us there. Some things are for everyone and always in fashion, and the desi lemon twist definitely gives the multinational soft drink giants a run for their money.