Mansoor said, “Will you have some tea, Sahib? Or coffee?”
“Just now you offered me nimbu pani.”
“A glass of nimbu pani.”
“Yes Sahib. At once.” Mansoor made to go.
“And oh –“
“Are there any arrowroot biscuits in this house?”
“I think so, Sahib.”
Mansoor went into the back garden to pluck a couple of limes, then returned to the kitchen to squeeze them into juice.
Her father seemed ready to explode at this patent fiction when Mansoor came in with the nimbu pani and a plate of arrowroot biscuits. He noticed the expression on Dr Seth’s face and stood hesitantly by the door.
“Yes, yes, put it down here, what are you waiting for?”
Mansoor set the tray down on a small glass-topped table and turned to leave. Dr Seth took a sip and bellowed in fury-
Mansoor turned, trembling. He was only sixteen, and was standing in for his father, who had taken a short leave. None of his teachers during his five years at a village school had inspired in him such erratic terror as Burri Memsahib’s crazy father.
“You rogue – do you want to poison me?”
“What have you given me?”
“Nimbu pani, Sahib.”
Dr Seth, jowls shaking, looked closely at Mansoor. Was he trying to cheek him?
“Of course it’s nimbu pani. Did you think I thought it was whisky?”
“Sahib.” Mansoor was nonplussed.
“What have you put in it?”
“You buffoon! I have my nimbu pani made with salt, not sugar,” roared Dr Kishen Chand Seth. “Sugar is poison for me. I have diabetes, like your Burri Memsahib. How many times have I told you that?”
Mansoor was tempted to reply, “Never,” but thought better of it.
- Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy
Yes, we’re back with more eccentricity, invention, and adventures in good eating. Our problems have cleared up and our plans to do better things with our lives have fallen through. And in the end we’ve realised we like posting on cookrookery, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I first heard about nimbu pani, the ubiquitous Indian limeade, in the pages of Vikram Seth’s impressively heavy novel. I was instantly bewitched at the thought of a drink composed of lime and salt but no tequila. What would it be like? Would it be the perfect thing for a hot day? Were Indians really that weird? I confess I did not make it through Seth’s entire tome (which in my defense was 1349 pages devoted to a single wedding) so I cannot be certain nimbu pani doesn’t appear in other positive descriptive passages, but the one above stayed in my mind for the requisite number of years to ensure I finally got around to making it. Some things are like that. Yesterday I read a recipe in a cookbook I happened to pick up and made it within hours (Nigella Lawson’s version of tandoori chicken), and with nimbu pani it took about fifteen years. Nevertheless I got there.
Nimbu pani is more of a concept than a recipe. It’s the kind of thing a nation makes when every family has a lime tree in their back yard. You squeeze some limes and you add sugar. Or else salt. Or perhaps paprika. And pepper (later in the chapter Dr Seth insists on pepper with his nimbu pani). For comparison, I squeezed a whole lot of big fat juicy limes and made two glasses, one with salt and pepper, the other with sugar. The end result was a slightly acid stomach from drinking so much straight lime juice and the clear consensus between Leslie and I that lime juice with salt and pepper is damn fine.
10 fat limes
salt and pepper to taste
Make sure your limes are full of juice. A young greengrocer’s apprentice once showed me a trick to this. Limes that are hard and bright green are probably terrible limes, no matter how attractive they may appear. A bright green skin can indicate that the lime is putting more attention into the rind than the flesh, which is the bit we care about. Those limes you would normally avoid, the yellowy ones with a bit of give to them, almost always have thinner skins and far superior juice.
Squeeze the limes. Mix in salt and finely ground black pepper (freshly ground and not pre-ground, please, unless you like drinks with grains of sand in them). I used a bare minimum of pepper and a good shake of salt. Stir well. Serve over ice if desired.
And hey. Welcome back.