While growing up in India, thandai was the forbidden delight of Holi—the colorful Indian spring festival where friends, family, and even strangers hurl clouds of pink, green, yellow powders at each other and spray jets of colorful water. On any other day of the year, thandai, literally translated as ‘something that cools’, is just a sweet, creamy milk drink, flavored with almonds, pistachios, and cashew nuts to boost immunity, spices like fennel, pepper, cardamom to aid digestion, rose petals for detoxification, milk to strengthen bones, and poppy seeds and melon seeds to lift spirits. But on Holi, when the refreshment is served as a way to cool off after playing in the hot sun, it traditionally comes with the addition of bhaang (a derivative of marijuana)—a single ingredient that not only turns thandai into a truly merry drink, but something that made it a whole lot more exciting (and forbidden) for my teenage self.
Every Holi, as I would step out, dressed in my throwaways, ready for a day of colorful revelry—pockets stuffed with packets of powdered colors, a bag of water-filled balloons in one hand and a water gun in the other—my mother would admonish me, in her severest of tones, to stay away from thandai. And I would. But the next day at school, I would hear classmates boast about how much more they had enjoyed the festivities after downing a glass of thandai with bhaang, and my own Holi fun would feel somehow diminished. As with all things forbidden, Holi-thandai’s delights took on mythic proportions in my head. I would imagine how creamy and nutty it must taste, how refreshing it must feel, and most of all, what a kick it must give. I’d resolve to disobey my mother next Holi, but I never did.
A decade has now passed, and while I no longer live in India, I still have fond memories of playing with colors and water on Holi. This year’s festival celebration fell on Wednesday, March 27, and just for fun I whipped up a batch of thandai for my friends and roommates. Instead of the bhaang I once longed to try, I added a few ounces of gin. The aromatic spirit accentuates the floral flavors of thandai beautifully, and gives it a slight kick—Holi-thandai that’s not forbidden but still very much a delight.