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Thandai – A Traditional Spiced Milk Beverage for Holi

Happy Holi to all of you who celebrate this wonderful and colorful festival!! Holi is celebrated on the day after the full moon in early March every year. It is the festival of colors, celebrated at the onset of spring in India. This the the time when you pack in your sweaters and get out and have fun! There are so many stories about why we celebrate Holi. The first one: to celebrate the bountiful spring harvest! A harvest is always a reason to celebrate :) Another story from the Hindu mythology tells the tale of the demoness Holika, who tried to kill Prahlad, the son of the demon king Hiranyakashyap. Prahlad is a devotee of Lord Vishnu and refuses to worship his father. So when the fire is lighted, instead or Prahlad, Holika is consumed in flames, by Lord Vishnu’s grace. This is replayed each year with bonfires and effigies (known as Holika Dahan), on the eve of Holi. This exuberant festival is also associated with the immortal love of Krishna and Radha, and hence, Holi is spread over 16 days in Vrindavan as well as Mathura – the two cities with which Lord Krishna shared a deep affiliation.

(Image Courtesy – Wikipedia)

Holi is celebrated with color powders and colored water. People gather around and apply colors on each other and spray the colored water using a pichkari (water gun). It is a day of ultimate fun for children and adults alike!

(Image Courtesy – Wikipedia)

I have bittersweet memories of Holi. Holi is not a very popular festival in southern India, where I come from. Plus to make the matters worse, March is always the time for final exams. So my mom never let us play Holi much. We did go out and have fun, but not as much as I liked as a child. By the time I grew up, I changed my mind because of the chemicals that go into the artificial colors. When we were young we used to make natural colors using an orange colored flower called “Tesu” or “Palash” . Here is a pic:

(Image Courtesy – Wikipedia)

These flowers were available in abundance where I lived. We got these flowers home and boiled them in water to produce brilliant orange colored water. Nowadays the awareness for natural colors has increased and more and more natural colors are available in the market.

The most exciting part about Holi my friends – is the food! There are so many sweets and savories made on this day. Though I have never personally celebrated Holi with such grandeur, I was talking to my friend Megha the other day. She is from North India and her family celebrated Holi in a very traditional manner. She told me the food preparations would start 7 days in advance! And each day is meant for some particular type of snacks, many of which I am not aware of! To me Holi food translates to – Thandai & Gujiya. And these will be the recipes I will be sharing with you for this Holi. Thandai is a drink and Gujiya is a fried sweet pastry.

Today’s recipe is thandai. Thandai literally translates to coolant or cold in Hindi. A very apt name for a summer drink, don’t you think so?? And this is not just a fancy drink, it is chock full of goodness! It is a spiced milk beverage that has dried nuts and spices, that give you the immunity for the changing weather. Spring is not exactly a season in India, its winter and then suddenly one day begins the summer. Holi is marked for the end of the bitter cold and the onset of spring/summer. Thandai is a perfect way to cool down after playing Holi in the hot sun. This is the thing I love about India and the Indian cuisine. Each and every thing has been thought through. The food has immense medicinal value, which benefit us without our knowledge. For example in thandai, the khus khus (poppy seeds), rose petals and melon seeds act as the cooling agents for the blazing heat. The black pepper wards off the cold infections. This may not be the perfect beverage for kids because of the spices, but its perfect for grownups! I have adapted this recipe from the celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor.

Note: A lot of people add in “bhang” (toddy/local liquor) to the thandai on Holi. I have personally never had the fortune of tasting bhang 😛 but if you would like to, you may add in some bhang for an extra kick. But only for adults please!!!

Serves 4

Milk (whole) – 5 cups
Saffron threads – 1/4 tsp
Almonds (raw) – 12 no.
Cashew nuts (raw) – 12 no.
Pistachios (peeled, roasted unsalted) – 12 no.
Poppy seeds (white) – 1 Tbsp
Melon seeds (or pumpkin seeds, hulled) – 2 Tbsp
Fennel seeds* – 1 tsp (or 1 tsp of fennel powder)
Cinnamon – 1/2 inch piece (or 1/2 tsp of cinnamon powder, Optional)
Nutmeg (powder/grated) – 1/4 tsp
Green Cardamom – 4 pods (or cardamom powder – 1/2 tsp)
Black peppercorns – 1 tsp (or Black pepper powder – 3/4 tsp)
Rose water – 1 Tbsp
Sugar – 8-10 Tbsp
Water – 1/2 cup

* If you can’t find fennel, use 1 small star anise pod.


  • Soak all the nuts, poppy seeds and melon seeds in 1/2 cup of water for at least 3 hours. Peel the almonds after soaking.
  • Dry roast the peppercorns, cinnamon, green cardamom and fennel seeds until aromatic, about 2-3 minutes. Remove and let cool to room temperature.

Note: You don’t have to roast the spice powders if you are using them.

  • Soak the saffron strands in 3 Tbsp of HOT milk. Bring the milk to a boil in a saucepan.
  • Combine the soaked nuts mixture and all the spices and grind into a smooth paste, adding water as required.
  • Once the milk comes to a boil, add in the soaked saffron and the ground nuts and spices. Keep stirring constantly to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.Turn off the heat and add in the rose water.

Tip: If you have some dried rose petals, you may soak them with the nuts and use them. Save some petals for garnish too!

  • Let cool to room temperature and refrigerator for at least 4-5 hours. Serve chilled, garnish with some chopped nuts and saffron strands if you wish to.

Note: Some people do like to strain thandai before serving, but I like to chew on the soft nuts. But if having sediments in your drink bother you, by all means pass the thandai through a fine mesh sieve before serving.

You might also like:

Mava Gujiya (Sweet Ricotta Cheese Filled Pastries)

Chakkara Pongal/Sakkarai Pongal (Rice-Jaggery Pudding)

Medu Vadai/Urad Dal Vada – Happy Pongal!

Thiruvadirai Kali & Kootu

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