Why Thandai Is Usually Sipped During Holi

Holi is a festival that originated in India and is now celebrated by millions around the world each spring. It has come to be known as the 'festival of colors' thanks to the brightly pigmented powders and paints that participants release into the open air during the festivities, but there are many other cultural practices tied to this occasion, including culinary traditions that are vibrant in their own way. If there's one dish or drink not to be missed during a celebration of Holi, it's thandai.

Thandai is a thick, sweet dairy-based drink that is layered with complex flavors thanks to a dazzling array of ingredients that frequently feature in traditional Indian cuisine, including several different kinds of nuts and spices. In some instances, the beverage is also steeped with bhang, a paste made with the buds and leaves of the cannabis plant. With or without the bhang, thandai is seen as a nourishing and refreshing beverage to be consumed during the warm days of Holi — a time of seasonal transition to boost energy, improve immunity, and aid digestion.

What thandai is and how to enjoy it

Thandai is made by combining milk and sugar with some combination of the following ingredients: a nut paste of almonds, cashews, and pistachios, which is then infused with poppy seeds, fennel seeds, melon seeds, peppercorns, rose petals, saffron, and cardamom. It should be left to chill in the refrigerator overnight and strained before serving. Thanks to the abundance of nuts, this drink is packed with protein to sustain you throughout the celebration while the many seeds and spices each offer their own health benefits. In particular, the fennel seeds (known as 'saunf') that are a core flavor in this drink (and many Indian dishes) are rich in fiber and anti-inflammatory compounds that support healthy digestive function (per Healthline).

In addition to drinking thandai, you can also enjoy foods inspired by these flavor combinations at home and while dining out. At Brooklyn ice cream shop Malai, founder Pooja Bavishi sometimes serves scoops laced with fennel that are reminiscent of thandai. This drink can also be transformed into rice pudding like kheer, another Indian culinary delight.

Other refreshing Indian-inspired drinks

While the exact date of Holi changes each year, it usually takes place during the month of March, at which point many regions in India are already registering temperatures over 70 degrees Fahrenheit — and some are even experiencing heat waves that verge into the triple digits. For this reason, it's important to stay hydrated with cooling beverages like thandai during the festival. For those with allergies or dietary restrictions, the recipe is easily adaptable. Those who adhere to a vegan diet can substitute the milk with a dairy alternative, such as oat milk — while people who are allergic to nuts can swap in pepitas and sunflower seeds.

If you find yourself daunted by the long list of unique ingredients that make up thandai, there are other classic Indian drinks, like mango lassi, that you can make at home for a similarly restorative experience on a hot day. For anyone craving a little something stronger, try Padma Lakshmi's ginger turmeric margarita to incorporate some Indian-inspired ingredients into an invigorating cocktail.