The World’s First Soft Drink

Sherbet has inspired many who drink it. There are a great many recipes, but the basic ingredients are the same­: fruit juices or extracts of flowers or herbs, combined with sugar and water (and sometimes vinegar) to form a syrup. The syrup is thinned with water, ice or even snow. As alcohol is forbidden in Islam, sherbet became one of the most important beverages in the Muslim world.

The reason for sherbet’s wide popularity was simply that, until the early 1900’s, there were few ways to preserve and transport fresh fruit. Refrigeration was available only to the very rich, and the horse was the most common means of transportation. Therefore, the availability of fruits depended on the season and the location—except for those that could be dried or transformed into a liquid: syrup.

nullOttoman Turks drank serbet before and during each meal. Even today, the Haci Abdullah restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey, serves serbet with many traditional Ottoman foods. Customers can still start a meal the old way, with a serbet called karisik komposto. This dense, rose-colored drink is made from quince, apple, pear, peach and apricot syrup that is mixed with iced spring water.

Andrew Mango, who was raised in Istanbul, remembers serbetciler, or serbet–sellers, who carried huge brass flasks with long spouts on their backs. The flavors they offered were varied and included tamarind, pomegranate, lemon and orange. Each serbetci carried a row of glasses tucked into the sash around his waist or into a brass cup-holder. For a customer, he would rinse a glass with water, bend forward and, from the spout that curved over his shoulder, pour delicious serbet into the glass. Street-side stands also sold serbet.

Serbet has long played an important role in family life in Turkey. In villages in eastern Turkey, it is still true today that after a marriage proposal is agreed on, the groom’s family goes to the bride’s house and out comes a long-spouted brass or copper ewer, called an ibrik. Inside is gul serbeti, or rose sherbet. The bride-to-be takes a drink to symbolize acceptance of the groom’s proposal. In India and Afghanistan, once the groom’s family has offered presents, the bride’s family offers gol sharbat in return.

In 1836, British author Edward W. Lane described at length the sharaab of Egypt:

The Egyptians have various kinds of sherbets or sweet drinks. The most common kind is merely sugar and water but very sweet; lemonade is another; a third kind, the most esteemed, is prepared from a conserve of violets, made by pounding violet-flowers and then boiling them with sugar. This violet-sherbet is of a green color…. There is also a kind of sherbet sold in the streets which is a strong infusion of liquorice-root… The sherbet is served in coloured glass cups, generally called kullehs … some of which are ornamented with gilt flowers etc. The sherbet cups are placed on a round tray and covered with a piece of embroidered silk, or cloth of gold.

Sharaab was also served to break each day’s fasting during the month of Ramadan, Lane observed:

In general during Ramadan, in the houses of persons of the higher and middle classes, the stool of the supper-tray is placed in the apartment in which the master of the house receives his visitors a few minutes before sunset…. With these are also placed several kullehs of sherbet of sugar and water—usually one or two more cups than there are persons in the house to partake of beverages in case of visitors coming unexpectedly…. Immediately after the call to evening-prayer, which is chanted four minutes after sunset, the master and such of his family or friends as happen to be with him drink each a glass of sherbet.

One such recipe served to this day in the United Arab Emirates is sharab loomi ma ward, or lemon sherbet with rosewater.

In Iran, sharbat is often made from aromatic flowers rather than just fruit. On the 13th day of Iran’s New Year’s holiday known as Nowruz, which is celebrated in March, families leave their homes to picnic. They eat and drink seven foods that start with the letter seen (“s”) and seven that start with sheen (“sh”), including a sharbat of sugar, vinegar and fresh mint called sekanjebin. As mint is believed to have healing powers, Iranian families have been known to sneak doses of sekanjebin to hospital patients to speed their recovery.

America’s thirst for carbonated drinks that were thought to be good for the body began in the late 1800’s. One of the first was Coca-Cola, which was sold in drugstores and pharmacies.

As its popularity increased, Coca-Cola opened bottling plants abroad. For a while, the two types of soft drinks, western and eastern, vied for position in sherbet shops and among street vendors in the Middle East. Over time, however, western soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi came to dominate. In modern times, they are often served not just with western fast-food meals, but also with traditional dishes. The practical need for sherbet has been outdated: Thanks to modern refrigeration and devices that keep food cool, “fresh” frozen and cold juices can be shipped to supermarkets worldwide and brought home to refrigerators.

Sherbet can also be made and enjoyed at home to this day. In the East, the necessary syrups are available at most markets. In the West, syrups can be ordered from specialty stores (many of which are on-line) or made from special-order ingredients.

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