Thandai by Saveur. Indian thandai (literally translated as ‘something that cools’) is a sweet, creamy milk drink flavored with nuts and mixed with spices. On Holi, the Indian festival of colors, the refreshment is traditionally served with the addition of bhaang (a derivative of marijuana). Here we’ve substituted gin instead, which accentuates the nutty, floral flavors in thandai perfectly.

Happy Holi: Bhang Lassi

Bhang Lassi, despite its name is actually a variation on thandai, a rich Rajasthani almond-flavored drink. A more accurate title for this recipe would be bhang ki thandai. It is typically enjoyed during the Hindu spring festival of Holi which begins today (March 8, 2012). Bhang is an herb. I’ll leave it at that.

• 1 carton (32 ounces) almond milk
• Bhang, as your budget affords
• 1 tablespoon ghee (Indian clarified butter)
• 2 tablespoons poppy seeds
• 2 tablespoons fennel seeds
• ½ teaspoon cardamom seeds
• Pinch of saffron
• 1-inch piece of ginger
• ½ cup superfine sugar
• 12 black peppercorns
• Grenadine, to taste
• Khus syrup, to taste
• Rose orange blossom water, to taste
• Coconut milk, to taste

Step 1: Prepare the Bhang. Bring a scant quarter cup of almond milk and the ghee to almost a boil and remove from heat. Using a mortar and pestle combine the bhang with liquid to form a green paste.

Step 2: Prepare the Thandai Base. Grind poppy, fennel and cardamom seeds and half the black peppercorns into a fine powder. In a saucepan bring ginger, saffron and the remaining almond milk to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely before adding spice powder and bhang paste. Refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours.

Step 3: Finishing the Bhang Lassi. Using cheese cloth or a sieve strain the spiced almond milk. Add the sugar and remaining peppercorns and mix well. The rest is up to you: add grenadine, khus syrup (a sweet vetiver-derived flavoring), rose or orange blossom water and/or coconut milk to taste. Serve chilled.

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In search of the Banarasi Bhang

Unlike Malana where peddlers solicit you quite openly, often pushing the boundaries of your patience, Banaras is sedate. There are many thandai shops around that provide drinks with or without bhang. At these shops, you won’t be served bhang along with your thandai unless you explicitly ask for it. When you do evince an interest in partaking some of the bhang on offer, you’ll be asked if you’ve had it before. If you flinch, you’ll be given only a pinch. If you nod your head vigorously admitting previous usage or even addiction, you’ll be warned that the stuff might go to your head. The shopkeepers display a genuine concern for their customers. Despite our ready admission of having had bhang earlier, the shopkeepers were reluctant to indulge us beyond a point. This concern for the well being of strangers seemed quite odd, even a bit touching. We were told stories of how some would walk unsteadily before getting lost in the maze of the bylanes, and how some would wake up after half a day or more on the ghats. ‘It’s better to be careful than careless,’ as one gentleman put it.

If you haven’t had Banarasi thandai before, you should definitely have some. It’s quite different from the Rajasthani or Odia preparation. You’ll have a great time enjoying your thandai with or without bhang. We found a government bhang shop at Manikarnika Ghat wherefrom we purchased bhang cookies (the Indian version of hash brownies) for ₹150 each. We were told the cookies remain fresh for 3-4 months without refrigeration. They are as potent as the bhang laced thandais. If smoking up is not your game, perhaps downing a few glasses of bhang is. You could have thandai in the afternoon and spend the rest of your evening hopping ghats, eventually settling down in a dark corner of one of the ghats. This is one experience that’ll stay with you for a long time afterwards.