Paharganj, New Delhi Railway Station, New Delhi, India.
Having that fresh lemon Soda, at a street vendors cart.
Mohammed is sitting under a beach umbrella. Except he is not on the beach. He is on a very busy street that frequently gets submerged under a tide of people and stays flooded with a loud devotional music, pouring out of a shrine, that makes conversation difficult.
In front of him is a strange metal cart. The top of which is crowded with glass tumblers turned upside down, a garden of fresh lemons, soda bottles, a jar of salt and a packet of sugar. Tools of his trade and an unmistakable snapshot of a water vendor in Delhi.
Mohammed comes from a place called Nangloi but his beat is right opposite the New Delhi Railway Station, where you will most likely find him seven days a week serving glasses of ice cold water or fresh lemon soda to passers-by in need of a bit of refreshment.
Relics from a Delhi long gone.
There is something very nostalgic about water vendors and their metal carts that always come painted with the words ‘refrigerated cold water’. They are relics from Delhi’s yesteryears (possibly from the 50s) when household refrigerators were few, cars fewer and radio was more popular than television.
Water vendors were a pretty common sight then and you could find them near bus stops, road junctions and even within posh localities, charging for every serving, a meager 5 or 10 paisa – coins that are now hunted by collectors. In those days, people visited them often. Though many city dwellers had their reservations. Paranoid health conscious mums from middle class families scolded children for going to one and the upper gentry opted not to be seen around one. They still stay away.
The city’s deteriorating drinking water quality and subsequent outbreak of waterborne diseases affected their popularity – as more people hesitated to drink water outside their own filtered supplies. Then came along the era of factory sealed water bottle and the water purifier. Suddenly drinking water outside had became a taboo punishable by a diseased death. Water vendors found themselves pushed off the streets but not into the junkyard, not as yet.
A few like Mohammad still operate across the city. To keep their businesses going many now stock up on soda bottles and cater to a clientele who find their simple menu more economical than purchasing a cola or a bottle of water.
So should you go for that fresh lemon soda?
The fresh lemon soda is not water, and if you have made up your mind to have one, it is a much safer bet than what comes pumped out of the old metal container – the inside of which is not visible. However, there are still a few other things you should consider.
Water vendors do not keep disposable cups. The old glass tumblers used are never detergent washed, only cleansed with a splash of water and put right back into the stack wet and dripping. If you are finicky about who drank from the glass before you did, think again.
What goes into it.
Ingredients that go into the fresh lemon soda vary from vendor to vendor. In most cases it is the type of soda used. Mohammed’s recipe includes fresh lemons, a spoonful of salt or sugar, and a bottle of club soda that comes labelled with the name of a manufacturer.
Crushed ice is the only water based ingredient in the list and can be avoided by request. Lemons are mostly fresh (none of them were shriveled or stale at Mohammed’s stall). Common salt and sugar are of the cheap variety bought in heaps from local stores.
How it is prepared.
Making a fresh lemon soda does not require any special skills and the water vendor will make it in much the same way as you might make it at home. Using a local made wooden squeezer he will first squeeze the lemon into a glass extracting every drop, then add in a spoonful of salt or sugar, stir the mixture and finally add in the soda.
The price tag.
The fresh lemon soda at a water vendor’s stall is cheaper than buying a bottle of water or a cola. With the lemon making it a more natural ‘beat the heat’ summer drink. A glass can cost Rupees 10, 15 or 20, depending on the size of the serving and the ingredients used.
What it is called.
Referring to it by its fancy name: fresh lemon soda might not do the trick. You might have to verbally suggest the ingredients, when the vendor prompts you to. Which he inevitably will when it comes to adding the salt or sugar. Pointing out the soda usually helps to get him started in the right direction.
What it tastes like.
The soda lends the drink a fizzy taste while the lemon a touch of bitterness. Additional spoonfuls of salt or sugar goes towards making it more salty or sweet.
Why should you have it in the first place.
The fresh lemon soda is a very simple culinary concoction that you can easily make at home. Or step into a cocktail bar for a more exotic experience in a fully air conditioned hall. Having it at the water vendor, saves you the trouble of having to make it on your own, and lets you indulge in a bit of the old Delhi that is fading out fast. On a hot summer day, when you are out on the street, it is also a great way to avoid that painful sunstroke.