How Parsis shaped India’s taste for soft drinks
A bottle of Pallonji’s raspberry soda comes with this helpful disclaimer: “Contains no fruit.” Electric red in colour, and syrupy sweet to the taste, the raspberry soda is a beloved cultural icon of India’s fast-disappearing Parsi community – as well as the endangered Irani cafes in the western city of Mumbai.
It is pure, fizzy nostalgia.
But peer more closely into one of Pallonji’s ancient glass bottles and you can discern a story of much greater significance: how Parsis helped shape India’s taste for soft drinks.
Over the past two centuries, Parsis were instrumental in popularising and producing carbonated beverages in India, laying the foundations for what is today a $8bn (£6.9bn) industry.
Soda had become a popular beverage in London by the early 1800s. Companies such as Schweppes sold plain carbonated water, advertising it as a health elixir. Other firms experimented with flavoured variants such as lemon, orange, and raspberry.
Inevitably, soda found its way from the heart of the empire to India, where it was a luxury item for Britons in the subcontinent. In 1837, Henry Rogers, a chemist in Mumbai, set up what was likely western India’s first “aerated water” factory.
Rogers’ product was not simply a refreshing pick-me-up. Before Mumbai completed its modern waterworks in the late 19th Century, it relied on well water, which was filthy and potentially deadly.
In the best of times, residents complained of drinking muddy liquid that was “very foul both to sight and smell, of a yellowish brown colour”. In the worst of times, hundreds died from cholera outbreaks.
Drinking carbonated water could be a life-saving habit. After all, carbonic acid in soda killed bacteria and viruses.
This was even more the case after the invention of carbonated tonic water in 1858, which contained quinine to ward off malaria.
Parsis sensed a commercial opportunity in the new fizzy drinks consumed by their colonial masters. Many were already involved in businesses that catered to Britons, as commissaries to the army or owners of hotels and “Europe shops” in cities.
They added soda to their inventories. According to community lore, the first Parsi to settle in Ahmednagar – a dusty army outpost in the Deccan – arrived in town with a soda-making apparatus strapped to a mule, with which he slaked the thirst of British soldiers.
By the mid-1800s, Parsis began imbibing the strange drink themselves.
Here, they served as trendsetters for other Indians, who had looked at soda with suspicion.
By Dinyar Patel