In early 1994, my family and I packed up our lives in the United Arab Emirates to move in with my grandmother in Lahore, Pakistan. When Ramadan began a few weeks later, in mid-February, I found that the rituals I had grown up with — the cannon being fired in Sharjah to mark the beginning of the month, being warned not to drink water on the commute to school — were replaced by different traditions: the banging of drummers patrolling the streets each morning to wake people up before the fast, and with family now nearby, interminably long evening meals at relatives’ houses.
On one of the first nights of Ramadan, just before the sun set, the table at my grandmother’s house became laden with plates, bowls, and glasses, then with the staples for iftar, the meal to break the fast: dates, fried kachoris (oval-shaped pastries stuffed with meat and spices), fruit chaat, and pakoras. There was also a hefty bottle of 7-Up next to a jug of milk; the milk was an odd sight because we never drank it with meals. I must have been visibly confused, because my father started explaining that we were going to mix it with the 7-Up.
Until that moment, I had a very clear idea of 7-Up: It was best drunk with crushed ice, and it was offered on a tray to guests; it gushed out of soda dispensers at fast-food restaurants, and sometimes you’d get some for a stomachache. But 7-Up and milk, together, went against the natural order of things.
Fifteen-odd minutes later, sirens blared from the loudspeakers of the neighborhood mosques, signaling the call to sunset prayer and the end of the fast. My father poured 7-Up into the jug of milk, and then distributed the mixture into everyone’s glasses. It looked just like regular milk except for a thin sheet of bubbles that had formed near the brim of the glass, which gradually became a top layer of foam. After eating the date on my plate, I reached out to take a quick gulp, steeling myself for the inevitably weird sensation.
The first sip was, to my surprise, fizzy and refreshing, even soothing. It was lighter than lassi, like a layer of cream had been stripped away and replaced with air, while the smoothness of the milk blunted the cloying sweetness of sugar and the citric clang of lemon-lime. The drink somehow combined the round, smooth simplicity of milk and the sweet crispness of soda.
Even though it was delicious, I still thought that my family was strange for mixing milk and 7-Up (and a few nights later, milk and Pepsi). But I soon learned that this bizarre combination wasn’t unique to our kitchen. In Pakistan’s Punjab province, the combo of milk (doodh) and soda — most commonly, 7-Up or Sprite — is known as doodh soda, and it is synonymous with breaking one’s fast during Ramadan and with summer, both times when ultra-quenching drinks are vital for satisfying a day-long thirst. I wound up drinking doodh soda every day for the rest of that Ramadan.
Doodh soda shouldn’t have seemed so strange to me, though. Sodas are generally popular across Pakistan, and in the days leading up to and throughout Ramadan, beverage makers clog TV broadcasts with ads featuring shiny, happy people gathered around a table, joyously pouring soft drinks. There’s a sense of commercialized piety in Pakistan during Ramadan, so soda companies also frequently advertise philanthropic initiatives to capitalize on the spirit of giving that is a part of Ramadan; this year, Coca-Cola is marketing its partnership with the Edhi Foundation, which provides social services throughout Pakistan. And now, marketers are trying to bring the decades-old tradition of doodh soda into the mainstream. Last year, for instance, Sprite launched a partnership with Olper’s, a popular Pakistani milk brand, to produce a DIY doodh soda kit, while the makers of Pakola, a sickeningly sweet cream soda-like drink with a lurid green color, now sell a flavored milk.
Doodh soda is also offered at dairy shops, which sell snacks and drinks made with fresh milk trucked in from local farms. Depending on the enterprise, a dairy shop can either be a hole-in-the-wall takeaway or a full-fledged cafe that serves a selection of sodas and fried food. On any given day during Ramadan, especially when it falls during the hotter, drier summer months, people can be found crowding around tables or spilling out onto the pavement as they order doodh sodas to guzzle on the spot or to serve at communal iftars.
One such shop is United Dairy, located on a busy street in Karachi’s commercial district, Saddar. It claims to sell over 1,000 liters of doodh soda during Ramadan. "People are hungry and very thirsty, and it quenches the thirst," Mohammad Muqeem, the cashier and manager, told me. "Water can do the job as well but doodh soda has its own taste." He added, “Any soda is harmful, I think, but when it’s mixed in milk it becomes beneficial.” (In the summer of 2016, over a hundred people ended up in a hospital in the city of Faisalabad in Punjab after drinking “unwholesome” doodh soda.)
At dairy shops, doodh soda is a far more elaborate affair than a jug of milk topped off with soda. First, the milk is boiled, as is custom for fresh milk in Pakistan, then it’s chilled and mixed with sugar, much like how doodh soda was made before the advent of mass-produced soda (and somewhat similar to how lassi is made). The milk is combined with ice and the soda of choice — in Karachi, it’s often Pakola, the local specialty — and mixed by rapidly pouring it from one jar to another. “You can’t make it in advance,” Muqeem said. “It’ll spoil, even if you put it in the fridge.” When I suggested using an electric blender instead of hand-pouring the doodh soda, he countered that it would “ruin all the cream.”
“It does take time,” Muqeem said, “but it’s a good product.”
Because dairy-based drinks like lassi are a part of our culinary heritage, I long assumed that doodh soda was an indigenous adaptation in South Asia’s Punjab region, a drink hatched up by an enterprising Punjabi milk bar owner, or an over-zealous local marketing venture (in Pakistan, 7-Up and Sprite are often considered a remedy for indigestion and stomach aches, or for calming one’s stomach after a spicy meal). But it turns out that doodh soda’s origins lie in the colonial legacy of Britain and Victorian-era beliefs about the medicinal values of soda water.
It’s not quite clear who first mixed milk with soda water, but by 1862, the combo was thought of as a restorative, with a doctor recommending “equal parts of milk and soda water" in the Dublin Medical Press as part of a diet for people with tubercular meningitis. In 1878, a “Ladies’ Column” on garden parties published in the Evening Telegraph newspaper declared that the mixture was a trend: “A beverage which has this season found considerable favor during the hot weather is iced milk and soda water, which has the advantage of quenching thirst more effectually than almost anything else.” And in 1886, a column in the Nottinghamshire Guardian advised housekeepers to have a supply of soda water and milk on hand for a “most sustaining drink.”
The columnist Majid Sheikh, who documents Lahore’s culinary culture in the newspaper Dawn, told me by e-mail that doodh soda’s origins can specifically be traced back to Victorian-era cyclists. “After a grueling race cyclists would cool off with cold beer, only to find a heaviness result,” Sheikh wrote. “Doctors suggested an opposite solution to lighten them by suggesting they have soda, or carbon dioxide-filled water.” But the taste of soda water put people off, so cyclists started adding milk to soda water. (Sarah Chrisman, a researcher and writer known for living a Victorian-era existence, has made similar findings, and wrote in a blog post a couple of years ago that “milk and soda is my favorite beverage these days, whether I've been riding or not.”)
There are signs that the gospel of milk and soda water had been introduced to the Indian subcontinent sometime before 1870 — a British evening newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette, sardonically noted in an article about European ideas spreading to the “natives of India” that Anglo-Indians were eschewing brandy and water for milk and soda water — and by 1881, soda water factories and soda consumption were prolific enough to be documented in the Imperial Gazetteer, an encyclopedia-like official tome that recorded life in India for the colonial administration. But the breakthrough that allowed soda to blanket the country, Codd-neck bottles, which preserve carbonation with a glass marble set against a rubber gasket, were brought to India in the early 1900s.
“Small bottle filling machines became a common sight in British India where carbon dioxide gas was used,” Sheikh told me. In Lahore, soda water became known as “banta cola,” after the slang word for marble, banta. (In India, it’s still sold as “banta cola” or “banta soda” and flavored with lemon and rock salt.) It was banta soda that people first used to make doodh soda, and it caught on with particular fervor in the Punjab region, which was divided when India gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947 and Pakistan was created.
By the 1960s, 7-Up had been introduced to Pakistan, and people in my father’s native Lahore were using it instead of banta soda to make doodh soda. I asked him why. “It was fashionable,” he said, matter-of-factly. Milk and 7-Up had caught on elsewhere as a marketing gimmick, too: Mid-century 7-Up ads in the United States pushed it as a family-friendly beverage, with a 1948 recipe pamphlet advising parents to entice “children who won't drink milk” by adding an equal amount of 7-Up, producing a “wholesome combination” with a “flavor appeal that especially pleases children.” Another set of ads from the time period promoted the “Seven-Up Float,” adding ice cream or sherbet to chilled soda for a dessert that’s “sparkling, cool and creamy.”
Using 7-Up instead of soda water was also more convenient — adding sugar became unnecessary — and cheaper: In the 1960s, a bottle of 7-Up cost just 30 paisas (a hundred paisas make a rupee). And so, over the last 60 years, in homes and at cafes like United Dairy, sugar-saturated soft drinks replaced banta soda, while in Punjab, doodh 7-Up was added to the beverage lexicon. By the time I was introduced to the drink, soda water had long ceased being the choice of aerated beverage to make doodh soda.
Until I moved abroad in my 20s, I’d never thought of myself being particularly attached to doodh soda. But one day in 2007, propelled by a sense of homesickness and unease, I realized that the only cure for the unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach was milk and 7-Up. I marched to the grocery store around the corner, bought a small bottle of 7-Up and a milk carton, and poured them out in my kitchen, in the perfect ratio of three parts milk to one part soda.
I watched it fizz for a second and then reached out for the glass. While dairy bars pour out doodh soda for small crowds, and families mix up jugs for iftar, in recent years I’ve found that doodh soda is best consumed in silence, in a private moment of joy. One glass later, I felt restored. I always do.
Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist and author based in the Middle East who writes about food, culture, and urban life. She reported from Pakistan with a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.
Samya Arif is an illustrator and graphic designer who lives in Karachi.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter
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