Big Soda Companies Start Selling India’s Spicy, Funky Masala Sodas

A typical masala soda shop in Mumbai. Flavors sold here range from traditional Indian ones with mango, pineapple and lemon, to more westernized flavors, like strawberry, kiwi and mojito.
Leena Trivedi-Grenier for NPR

It was a warm January day in Vadodara, in western India, when my aunt, Apeksha Kaki, announced that we were going to a soda shop. This was my first time visiting extended family in India, and I was eager to try local foods and drinks. So, I was a bit disappointed at the mention of soda.

“What kind of soda, Kaki?” I asked my aunt. “Like, Coca Cola?”

“Nai, Leena,” she replied. “It’s called … soda, but it’s not what you are used to.”

It was around 9 p.m. when we rolled up to this shop on the outskirts of the city. A crowd of about 30 people had gathered at the small shop, which consisted of two soda dispensers and several employees. On the counter was a wooden box sectioned into a few dozen compartments, each with a plastic cup of soda – sort of an assembly line, allowing the staff to handle many orders at once. Several plastic bottles sat on one end of the counter. Repurposed into squeeze bottles, some were filled with fresh lemon juice and plain or flavored syrups. There were canisters with spices and rock salt.

A couple of employees filled the cups with soda water and placed them in the compartments for a third employee — the flavor man — to finish with syrups and spices. I was amazed at how quickly and gracefully he moved, like a dancer, effortlessly squeezing fresh lemon juice, squirting in syrups and mixing in condiments, handing the finished sodas to customers.

My aunt suggested I try a nimbu soda. The first sip flooded my mouth with fresh lemon and spices that I’d never expected in a cup of soda: chili pepper, cumin, ginger, black salt. Sweet, salty, savory and a bit funky all at once. This was not just soda. This was masala soda, the single most flavorful sip of my entire trip, and I needed more.

“Masala soda is a punchy, flavored soda drink,” Denise D’Silva Sankhe, a Mumbai-based food writer told me recently. “It’s typically a street style drink that you will find vendors serving up in the hot Indian summer.” While it can be found all over the country, most people agree that masala soda originated in North India.

Masala means spice mix, so it’s literally soda with spices. The flavor I tried is the aerated cousin of nimbu pani, a sweet and salty lemonade or limeade that many Indians drink to stay hydrated during hot summers. But there’s a myriad other flavors. The masala could contain as little as white salt, black salt and cumin, or an endless list of spices including amchoor (dried, powdered sour mango), black pepper, ginger, chili pepper (dried or fresh), turmeric, asafoetida, mint, even anar dana (dried pomegranate seed powder). A popular flavor in Mumbai and the state of Gujarat is jal jeera, a spice mix with roasted cumin that’s otherwise used for another traditional summer drink of the same name — jal jeera literally translates to cumin water.

The other most important ingredient of this masala is the kala namak, or black salt. It’s a rock salt containing sulfur, which lends a pungent, almost eggy smell to the drink. Carbonated water gives the drink effervescence, which can be further enhanced with a simple syrup and nimbu (meaning lemon or lime) juice or a fruit flavored drink called sherbet. Occasionally, it’s served with commercial sodas, like Thums Up (an Indian cola) or Sprite.

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Leena Trivedi-Grenier