It may be September, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still hot out there—you may have heard a heat wave is blanketing the western U.S. The ideal way to beat the heat is by sitting poolside with a something cold to drink. The pool may not be in the cards for you, so the least I can do is help you craft a late summer drink that’s more interesting than your typical lemonade. Refreshingly, one sip of nimbu pani will transport you to the poolside cabana in your mind.
Nimbu pani is a citrus drink common in India and other parts of South Asia. Its recipe varies depending on the region you’re in or how you prefer to flavor it, but in its simplest form, it always includes lemon or lime, sugar, and an herb. From there, feel free to add fresh ginger, spices like black pepper or cumin, or a pinch of volcanic salt. Muddle your concoction together and top off with plain water or soda water.
The resulting beverage offers a stimulating swirl of flavors and aromas, captivating your tastebuds with spice combinations you may have never before experienced in a drink. I first tried it via a canned sparkling version of nimbu pani that I picked up from Bollygood. I was surprised by its lime/basil/cumin flavor, and it inspired me to try a few homemade versions. After you get the hang of it, and find your own balance of sweet and tangy, it’s easy to feel like a nimbu pani mixologist. It only takes a few ingredients to get a whole lot of flavor and you can make it as complicated or as simple as you want. (My energy level is directly impacted by the temperature, so the hotter it is, the simpler I make this drink.)
Nimbu panis are endlessly customizable
To craft your own, you’ll need about a quarter cup of citrus fruit juice. (Lemon or lime are the most common, but grapefruit works too.) Stir in a teaspoon or two of sugar until it dissolves. Decide if you want to have muddled herbs in the drink, or just the aroma of them. If you enjoy muddled, add the herbs to a drinking glass with a half of a teaspoon of sugar and briefly muddle them together to release the oils. I don’t enjoy a lot of particles floating around in my drinks, so I prefer to bruise mint or basil by stacking two or three leaves and twisting or rolling them aggressively without breaking them. Put the bruised herbs in a glass and fill the glass with ice. Pour the sweetened citrus juice over the ice. Fill the glass with the coldest water you can manage, or if you’re partial to fizz, use seltzer water.
To glam-up your nimbu pani, test out some spices. Start with adding a pinch of sea salt to the mix when you add the sugar. If you happen to have volcanic sea salt, use that; the touch of saline balances out the sour fruit nicely, and the essence of sulfur from volcanic salt is subtle, and adds another layer of interest.
Take it to the next level by adding a pinch of cumin, or microplane a ¼ teaspoon of fresh ginger root into the mix. These two ingredients work wonders in dialing back the sweetness without leaving you with a bland beverage. Less than an ⅛ of a teaspoon of cumin will bring an earthy profile that subdues the sugar in the drink; the ginger adds a little bite.
The beauty of nimbu pani is you can mix it to suit your mood on any given day. The following recipe is simple and light, with just a touch of spice accenting the accompanying herbs. You can switch it up using the herbs you have on hand (maybe the ones over-producing in your garden?) or the citrus fruit you can’t seem to get through. Why not make a combination of lemon-grapefruit, or try going unsweetened? Amd although my recipe is non-alcoholic, I don’t see why you can’t celebrate with a Collins glass of nimbu pani-vodka or rum.
Thyme for Lemon Nimbu Pani
- 1/4 cup of lemon juice (about one big lemon)
- 4 full sprigs of thyme (extra for garnish)
- 2 teaspoons sugar (adjust to taste)
- Pinch of black lava salt
- Pinch of ground cumin
- Soda water to fill
In a measuring cup, add the first five ingredients and stir. Feel free to bruise up the thyme a bit with your stirring implement.
Fill a rocks glass halfway with ice and strain the mixture into the cup. Fill with soda water and garnish with a sprig of thyme. Enjoy in the coldest area of your home.
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