City Food – Shikanji, Around Town
Chill of the lemon.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The simplest things in life are the most exquisite.
As you walk in the scorching heat of Connaught Place, the sun is white, and the air is still and dusty. You are sweating and your throat is dry. Suddenly you come across a water cart, the one that sells a glass for Re 1 and the lemonade version for a rupee more. The vendor is sitting listlessly behind a row of glass tumblers, which are filled with green-yellow lemons.
The scene is tempting but you are reluctant to approach the bhayya. What if the water is not clean? But your foolish companion insists on having a glass of shikanji (lemonade) and you have no choice than to say yes. The vendor picks a glass, sprinkles kaal namak (rock salt) into it, squeezes a lemon, fills it with the cold water and gives you the glass.
The rest is magic. The salty sourness of the chilled lemonade gently bites into your parched throat and reawakens you to life. You are ready to take on the day’s heat once again.
Priced at Rs 2, shikanji is Delhi’s most economical and refreshing drink. In the old parts of the city such as Matia Mahal and Ballimaran, exclusive shikanji stalls replace water carts. They are recognisable by their identical design.
The lemonade jar has a steel lid fixed with a handle. Enclosed in a layer of salted crushed ice, the jar is gently shaken around to ensure that the lemonade freezes uniformly into ice.
When a customer arrives, the vendor opens the lid, crushes the lemonade ice, ladles it into a plastic glass, adds masala powder and spikes it further by squeezing a lemon. The iciness jolts you out of your heat-induced stupor.
The most refreshing shikanji that you have to try is at Ved Prakash’s stall in Chandni Chowk.
A punchier version of shikanji is banta, Delhi slang for lemon soda. Sealed with a glass ball called kancha, banta bottles are easily spotted in the North Campus area of Delhi University or any other busy markets, such as Lajpat Nagar.
With its strong masala and extra lemon drops, it is very tart.
Coming back to the shikanji, there is a story that when Pakistani dictator General Zia ul Haq came visiting his former alma mater, Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College, he first looked for the college’s in-house shikanji walla. General Zia died in 1989 but that lemonade man is still there at the Stephen’s.