Travel

Is Rooh Afza the Most Refreshing Drink in the World?

A love letter to Rooh Afza.

Photo by Julia Gartland

I’ll never forget my first taste of Rooh Afza, the "Summer Drink of the East,” a South Asian syrup that was a mainstay in our house growing up. It was as if something had turned on inside of me. I could only liken it to the first time ones tries cheese, or a first kiss. I never knew such a flavor could exist and that it could bring me such pleasure.

The two ingredients that give Rooh Afza its signature taste are rose water and kewra, which is also known as Screw Pine Essence. This name is a misnomer; I mistakenly believed for years in the existence of some type of floral pine tree, but kewra is actually the white flower of the pandanus plant. The leaves of this plant, called pandan, are a ubiquitous flavoring in many Southeast Asian desserts. The flower is a vital ingredient in many special-occasion dishes in South Asia, particularly those associated with Muslim communities.

Years ago in high school, while I was coming home from the bus stop, a woman stopped me on the street (she was walking a cocker spaniel).

“My daughter says you’re good at maths,” she told me. “Can you tutor my son?”

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Top Comment:
“Also, we have a contender for Rooh Afza called Jam e Shirin (bowl of sweetness - loosely translated). They taste almost same but I think Jam e Shirin wins! ”
— Zainab
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Her son was known as “Shorty” in my neighborhood, which was home to a random mix of middle-class professionals and mischief kids from up north who were shipped down to Miami to stay with their abuelas. Among the neighborhood kids who would hang out by the local basketball court, Shorty was the youngest and shortest (which is how he got his name). He wore baggy pants and designer polo shirts. His sister gelled her hair and sported hoop earrings and dark lipliner. They assimilated into the Latinesque urban aesthetic that was prevalent in Miami at the time. To all intents and purposes, they could’ve passed for Latinos.

But Shorty’s family was from Pakistan. His mother, who spoke with a noticeable Urdu accent, would sometimes greet me at the door wearing a shalwar kameez. She was affable and attentive, always offering me a water and a snack and disciplining Shorty whenever he got out of hand.

One day, she asked if I wanted to try something “very Pakistani” and handed me an ice-cold glass filled with what she described as punch. I took a sip and instantly fell in love, asking what it was. She went back into the kitchen to retrieve the bottle of Rooh Afza to show me the gorgeous floral label and the vibrant ruby concentrate inside. She let me keep it, and I took it home to show my family.

For years my family and I associated Rooh Afza with Pakistan, probably because Shorty’s family introduced us to it. Additionally, whenever I needed to replenish my supply at the local South Asian grocery, the bottles I reached for on the shelves came from Pakistan. To be exact, they came from Hamdard Laboratories in Karachi, Pakistan.

Until one day, while shopping at an Indian grocery in Louisiana, I came across a bottle of Rooh Afza that looked entirely different from what I had been used to for years. The label featured a cornucopia of botanicals—fruits, flowers, vegetables, and herbs—on a black background. It was still manufactured by Hamdard Laboratories, but I saw that this particular bottle came from India. Even more fascinating was that, in addition to rose and kewra, this Indian Rooh Afza also featured nearly a dozen other different botanicals, including sandalwood, carrot, pineapple, and even spinach.

Rooh Afza, but bottled in India. Photo by Rooh Afza

Rooh Afza is perhaps the most publicly recognized product of Hamdard Laboratories throughout South Asia. However, to equate Hamdard with Rooh Afza would be unjustly reductionist. Hamdard Laboratories was founded in Delhi in 1906 as a natural medicine company that employed Hindu-based Ayurvedic health practices with Persian-based Unani principles—a fusion of cultural ideas that was all too common in the Indian subcontinent. The company currently produces nearly 30 medicinal products to remedy all sorts of ailments from sore throats and hair loss to fertility and blood pressure.

The original company started as a humble shop where patients could get a diagnoses for their ailments and subsequently receive appropriate treatments for them. Hamdard’s founder, Hakeem Hafiz Abdul Majeed, created Rooh Afza shortly after he founded his company in 1907. The original purpose of this syrup was to combat fatigue and loss of energy due to excess heat. The combination of botanicals in Rooh Afza is said to have cooling properties and provides energy when the summer heat makes most people sluggish.

Almost immediately after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Abdul Majeed’s younger son, Hakeem Mohammed Said, moved to the newly formed country of Pakistan and established a branch of Hamdard Laboratories in Karachi. In 1953, he established another branch in Dhaka, East Pakistan at the time (which would later become the nation of Bangladesh). In the 1980s, Dr. Hakim Mohammed Yousuf Harun Bhuiyan took over the Bangladeshi branch of Hamdard.

In Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, Hamdard Laboratories is registered as a Waqf, which is a nonprofit organization under Islamic law. As such, the company in each country is responsible for providing educational scholarships and medical care to needy patients. In Pakistan, for instance, Hamdard maintains dozens of free clinics throughout the country where patients can be diagnosed free of charge and only need to pay a nominal fee for medications. Additionally, the company dispatches mobile healthcare vans that dispense medications (again, free of charge) to the most financially needy patients.

The combination of botanicals in Rooh Afza is said to have cooling properties and provides energy when the summer heat makes most people sluggish.

In an Islamic country like Pakistan, the importance of Hamdard and its most iconic product, Rooh Afza, is strongly felt during Ramadan. Because observant Muslims abstain from food and beverages from sunrise to sunset for an entire month during this holiday, Rooh Afza often features prominently in pre-fasting meals in order for the faithful to maintain cool internal temperatures while fasting. The floral drink is also a necessity when breaking fast, as it is said to effectively hydrate. Hamdard even gives out free cups of Rooh Afza at fast-breaking meals called iftars throughout the country, and outside mosques, to greet fasters with a replenishing glass of sweet refreshment.

You can find Hamdard on the streets, dispensing pre-mixed Rooh Afza and water to anyone and everyone who needs a drink during Pakistan’s infamous summer heatwaves.

As for me? I’m not sure that anything can cool me down quicker or quench my thirst more than a cold glass of Rooh Afza. After all, that’s what it was intended to do over 100 years ago. And it still serves the same purpose today.


More Recipe Ideas for Rooh Afza

1. Falooda

This drink/dessert-hybrid is a classic, perfect for enjoying outside on a lazy, hot summer day. Recipe developer (and big-time falooda fan), Nikkitha Bakshani, typically enjoys this at a cafe or restaurant, but why not take a stab at making it at home? Basil or chia seeds, which get thick and gelled, join crunchy-chewy rice vermicelli, Rooh Afza-flushed whole milk, and a scoop of ice cream in a glass. Don't forget to top the whole thing with toasted and crushed pistachios for even more textural contrast.

2. Rose-Swirled White Chocolate Bark

White chocolate can be a bit one-note—too sweet and almost cloying. But with the addition of rosy, herbaceous Rooh Afza, plus crunchy, savory pistachios, this bark takes on a ton of complexity and intrigue in flavor (plus, pretty pink swirls, to boot).

3. Sweet Lassi With Rose Water

Lassis—a thick yogurt-based drink that can skew savory or sweet, fruity or spicy—is a summertime favorite in the Subcontinent. It's cooling and satisfying without being heavy. This particular recipe for a sweet version of the drink has a light floral vibe from added rose water; but you can totally replace the rose water called for in the recipe with Rooh Afza syrup, and lessen the sugar by a tablespoon or two. Bonus: This will also give the drink a lovely, light-pink hue that's sure to instantly cheer you up.

4. Rosy Champagne

As seen in a Kir Royale, French 75, or Bellini, bubbly plus fruit juice or liqueur or syrup plus a little sweetness equals a highly sippable, ultra-refreshing summer beverage. This iteration, which features Rooh Afza, rose water, and a touch of lemon mixed together with dry champagne, is a little bit mysterious but fully delicious.

Have you ever tasted Rooh Afza? Tell, tell in the comments.

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  • Aylster
    Aylster
  • Bulbul
    Bulbul
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    Peter Turner
  • mmarcus
    mmarcus
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I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.

113 Comments

Aylster September 7, 2020
Dear Carlos,
I am stunned to find such a well written piece on Rooh Afza by a non South Asian! Your article describes the history of Rooh Afza so beautifully and accurately. Then the parts where you describe your childhood memories paint the colorful picture in my mind. I grew up in California with immigrant parents from Pakistan and true depictions of cultural icons is hardly ever narrated so well by somebody who doesn’t come from a South Asian background! Indeed you are true to your trade - a true foodie! Well done once again!
 
Bulbul August 13, 2020
I grew up in India and now live in the US. I’ve always loved Rooh afza but never knew it’s history - thanks so much for this article. There is something so comforting in the fact that a few things remain unchanged like the Rooh afza bottle :)
 
The P. July 29, 2020
Purchased a bottle today at an Indian Grocer in Columbia,SC. Good sized bottle cost $3.99. .
 
Peter T. July 5, 2020
and where can we get some of this great drink?
 
AnnB612 July 7, 2020
Hi Peter;

I would think Asian, Mediterranean markets. And, of course, Amazon has both versions - https://www.amazon.com/Rooh-Afza-Beverage-Sharbat-Happiness/dp/B07VZNR61L/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=Rooh+Afza&qid=1594131357&sr=8-3;
https://www.amazon.com/pin-to-plane-Hamdard-Roohafza/dp/B071S57YT3/ref=sr_1_6?dchild=1&keywords=Rooh+Afza&qid=1594131357&sr=8-6. They also have the rose water mentioned for the other recipes.
 
km082270 July 10, 2020
Hello you can get it at an Indian grocery chain like Cherians fairly inexpensive if you have one in your city.
 
mmarcus July 4, 2020
I have enjoyed the rose flavored drink for many years now. I first discovered it in New Orleans, on a very hot day. I have recently found the Rooh Afza brand again, after losing track of it for several years. Just recently bought a new bottle and will probably enjoy it, mixed with Club Soda and crushed pistachio nuts, over ice. Loved the article.
 
Gordon July 4, 2020
Before people knew about vanilla there always was rose and violet flavors avaliable. They were easily obtainable. The Persians use tremendous amounts of rose flavor in what they eat and drink. Use it subtly. Falooda is an excellent drink. Now try adding this to a cake frosting, use just a very little amount. It adds this, just what is that flavor component? You can use plain ordinary rose water also if you can not locate anything else for the frosting. But the drink needs this brand. [ Violet is also an interesting addition to a cake frosting. Go very subtle, and again people will ask you what is that flavor as they power eat your cake. ]
 
Heather July 4, 2020
Thank you for your article, Carlos!
I have never even heard of this, more over tried it. It sounds delish, though, and I would like to.! Where do you normally find this beverage?¿?

You mentioned your mom is a Texan- I think that is so cute!❣
I am also a Texan. Born and raised in the southern panhandle, on the plains or the Llano Estacado.
We don't have many [Indian] delicacies around here to which I am familar.
I have been to one Indian store, but no idea if they are open for the times or if they would have this product.

Any suggestions- thoughts?
 
AnnB612 July 7, 2020
Heather;

Do you have an Asian market? Or you can order it on Amazon...
 
Deeba R. July 3, 2020
Such a fascinating read, and how beautiful is the narrative. Who would know that our humble roohafza would pop up.on the Food52 letter in the inbox. It brought my childhood alive, so.mamy rosy memories flooded in. Thank you 💗
 
Jaimie July 3, 2020
That was such a beautifully written article. Even if I do not ever get a chance to try this, i love the history and personal experience. Thank you
 
Nanci W. July 3, 2020
Where can I obtain this drink in San Diego, CA.?
 
YesKimbo July 4, 2020
I found some on eBay. Others have found it on amazon. During non-Covid times, I hope to purchase it in person at a south Asian grocery store.
 
Gordon July 4, 2020
Yes almost every south asian store will carry this.
 
AnnB612 July 7, 2020
Nanci;

Do you have an Asian market? Or you can order it on Amazon...
 
Annab July 9, 2020
I'm headed to North Park Produce, which usually has a good selection of Pakistani products, to see if they have it STAT!
 
aminahk July 12, 2020
Try Miramar Cash & Carry at 9262 Miramar Road. They have Indian and Pakistani groceries and should carry it.
 
YesKimbo June 28, 2020
I read this weeks ago and because it was so lovingly written I had to find some Rooh Afza. I’d never had it before. You were right — it’s lovely with sparkling water and is indeed very refreshing. I found it makes a lovely cocktail with the syrup, lime juice, gin and lots of seltzer. I see from other comments that lemonade is highly recommended so I’ll try that soon. I’m so glad you wrote this to introduce us to this syrup. I love it!
 
Ramonita O. July 3, 2020
I buy this on Amazon,few bottles left.
 
preetiigautam June 8, 2020
Thanku so much for sharing some great interesting facts about rooh hafza. I really love the taste of roof hafza. In summers it's my favorite drink. I added roof afza in milk and sometimes I added roof afza in lemon water.
 
Amna K. May 25, 2020
This was a great article. One of the more popular recipes using Rooh Afza is lemonade. In itself, it is too sweet for many Pakistanis. You usually add a little syrup to water mixed with lemon juice and salt for a really refreshing drink. Especially in Ramzan.
 
chbenard May 24, 2020
This article made the drink sound very intriguing, however after further research it seems that the formula is no longer as described, AT ALL. Apparently the herbs are no longer part of the mix even in the Indian version. The color comes from food coloring that is banned in Europe and the ingredients are altogether quite chemical. My hypothesis is that this article reflects childhood memories, but that the product itself has since then changed significantly and not for the better.
 
Kt4 May 24, 2020
I have to agree with you. I have had this & it tasted *wonderful*, but all the coloring & chemical ingredients discouraged me from buying it or drinking it again.
 
Lee May 21, 2020
So is it a syrup that’s mixed with water or club soda, or do you drink it straight?
 
wildriver May 21, 2020
It is a syrup that you can mix with water (most common) or milk. Some people like to add a little sugar too but it's not needed if you use the right amount of the syrup, about three tablespoons for me, per cup. There are other ways to use Rooh Afza as well, as mentioned in this article, hopefully you can try one of these or come up with your own novel idea :-) Cheers!
 
Katherine N. June 15, 2020
I like it with sparkling water, or occasionally tart lemonade. Very refreshing and light.
 
Rosemary May 21, 2020
Is there such a thing as rooh afza without the red food coloring?
 
Stevie T. May 24, 2020
I live in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, and the only Rooh Afza is neon. I think that that's the only iteration.
 
MadihaJamal May 3, 2020
This was such a great read! I am very addicted to Rooh Afza, I usually make a lemonade Rooh Afza. Growing up Pakistani in America I never knew the history behind it and now I feel like I am supporting a cause just buying this drink, more of a reason to drink more.
 
wildriver April 24, 2020
wow how refreshing to read about the most refreshing drink ever (for me at least), the summer drink of the east, Rooh Afza, wonderfully written, awesome all the way!! Whenever I feel fatigued from heat or overworked Rooh Afza is my go to drink. Try with a hint of lemon/lime and just a tiny bit of salt for a different twist
 
Beverley R. November 12, 2019
I bought a bottle of Qarsi Jam E Shirin and would like to know how much to mix into chilled glass of water to make a refreshing drink. Thank you for you time.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. November 12, 2019
I guess I forget that not everyone has experience with drink syrups. You add to your taste. Start with a tablespoon. Give it a taste, and add more if you'd like. It's very customizable. If you have ever added chocolate syrup to a glass of milk, it's the same type of process. To give you an example, my mother would add just a drop to her water bottle to perfume it and encourage herself to drink more water. I add enough to make it taste like an agua fresca. And I know some people who make it as sweet as soul food iced tea. It's all up to you.
 
MacGuffin April 14, 2020
Don't forget how yummy it is in cold milk.
 
Dana M. August 29, 2019
Thank you. Pieces like this make me love Food52 more and more. Can't wait to see out this new drink.