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?"
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 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.
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.