When my father was young, he offered to help out once in the making of the traditional Holi Thadal. Thadal is what us Sindhis call Bhaang or Thandai. My grandmother coarsely ground the nuts and spices on a silvatta, which he then activated by way of his fingers, mashing them in a sturdy muslin cloth parcel partially suspended over rich milk. He doesn’t remember much of what went inside, but he claims it tasted really good.
As a kid, I had my own favourites to look forward to year after year. During Mahashivratri, the little patch of green behind the temple at Crescent, the building my Nani stayed in, was where Thadal was made, and it was that kind of creamy, rich but perfectly spiced thadal that I have grown to love. When opportunity presents itself, I wait in long winding queues, empty bottles in hand, ready to fill them up with chilled Thadal to take home and drink through the day.
Far superior than the ready Thandai mixes available in stores, the homemade version might be a bit of a project to take up, but if you set your mind to it, it will yield a drink that can only be described as the nectar of the Gods. Thadal in my house is made from a mixture of ground almonds, poppy seeds, fennel seeds, cardamom pods, melon seeds, black pepper and sugar. Fancier ingredients like saffron and rose petals are usually left out, but can be added if you like. There are always subtle differences between the different kinds of Thadal you will taste, but the quantities for the one we make at home are quite fixed because we want to keep it consistent year after year. A good Thadal, in my opinion is one that is not too sweet, boasts a good balance of strong spices like cardamom and fennel in every sip, with a back-of-the-throat finish of black pepper. Full fat milk must always be used to make it, and the almonds must be of very good quality as they will determine the final result. For the version with bhaang, a small quantity of the bhaang is dissolved in the prepared Thandai and served.
The recipe below is for a whooping 11 litres of milk, and we make this much because it’s usually circulated among close family and friends.
Milk 11 litres
Fennel Seeds/ Saunf 75g
Poppy Seeds/ Khus Khus 250g, soaked overnight
Almonds 500g, soaked overnight in warm water
Melon seeds 50g
Caster sugar 750g
Black Pepper 35-40g
Green Cardamom pods 65-70g
To begin, slip the almonds out of their skins. They should slip out quite easily, and if they don’t, just add some more warm water and this will aid it. Clean the poppy seeds. This is done by grabbing a fistful, out of the soaking water, and spreading it out in the palm of your hands to tell if any impurities are present, picking them, then soaking your hand in the water again to release the poppy seeds back into the water. This action of sifting for impurities is called sansaar.
Drain the poppy seeds and add them to a mixer grinder or a stone mortar pestle and grind together with the skinned almonds, cardamom, fennel, black pepper and melon seeds. Use up to 500ml of milk to bring the paste together. You may have to do this in batches if your mixer grinder isn’t big enough. Using your hands, scrape out the spice mix and set aside.
Wet a large clean muslin cloth that is not torn and free of any kitchen smells. Use this cloth to line the surface of a large aluminium or steel utensil in which you shall be preparing the Thadal. You will need some help with the next step.
Use one set of hands to hold down and stretch the muslin cloth firmly over the surface of the large container. Add in a portion of the blended spiced milk mixture in the centre, and pour over fresh milk in batches of 500-750ml. Stop after the first pour and keeping a firm hand over the muslin cloth so as to not let any of the spice paste enter the milk below, use the other hand to massage the spice and milk mixture, activating it with your fingers to draw out the flavours and drain all the remaining milk from the paste. During this time, the lower bit of the muslin cloth parcel can be partially immersed in the milk.
When the paste starts feeling dry and all that’s left are grains, remove the spices and milk paste, set this aside and add another fresh portion. Pour over another batch of 500-750ml milk and repeat, massaging the paste with your fingers till all you’re left with is a dry paste. Do this till all the 11 litres of milk has been added to the Thadal. Between milk additions, also add a few blocks of ice to the utensil so that everything is chilled when you’re done.
Once you’ve exhausted all the milk, just to ensure that you haven’t left any good bits of flavour behind, take all of the spice mixture again into the muslin cloth and firmly twist it into a parcel to squeeze all the remaining milk out. You can also do this in batches.
Taste the Thadal.
If you feel that it is lacking any spices, quickly grind a bit more and make a little knotted parcel and add it to the Thadal to let it infuse for anything between 10-12 minutes, then fish it out.
If it is too heavy, or rich, or too sweet, thin it out with milk or some more ice.
Decant the Thadal into bottles and send them packing. Don’t throw away the remaining Thandai powder as it can be stored and used in other ways.