nimboo pani: challenges and triumphs

there has been some complaint from some quarters that i have not recently provided any update about my life, reserving blog posts for slightly more wonky topics.

this post will be a small antidote.*

in delhi, one way of dealing with the energy-sapping heat is nimboo pani — literally “lemons water” but in actuality lemonade that is salty and possibly spicy/masala-ed in addition to sweet. (some people add mint but, of course, such frippery is not welcome in this household. i have only recently found a source for basil leaves, which is a far more sensible option.) in this salty way, nimboo pani approximates ORS and can help combat creeping dehydration, which seems to happen even if you are not noticeably sweating or doing anything at all.

i am curious as to why similarly salty lemonades did not catch-on in other hot places, for example, the southern US, which goes heavy on the sweet drinks in summer but, to my knowledge, doesn’t add salt (granted, the food may provide plenty, so things may balance out).

in any case, to celebrate having my flat nearly in order (yes, i know, people want pictures; patience is a virtue), i had a small open-house party at the beginning of july (HOT). i wanted to have nimboo pani on hand but was uncertain how to have ample drink prepared given the constraints of the refrigerator space and the need to have other drinks and food chilled as well.

one small triumph came in finding a shop that sold pre-squeezed lemon juice. nimboo (lemon) here are generally about golf- ball sized and the prospect of squeezing enough to quench thirst for 5+ hours was unappealing, no matter how many martha stewart points i would earn.

my first thought to dealing with the space issue was to make a lot of nimboo pani in advance and then freeze it. this seemed briefly promising until i thought about using salt to melt ice in the winter. this led to a string of probably unnecessarily dramatic texts to pop of the nature “I HAVE  A CHEMISTRY CRISIS.” it was agreed that freezing salty water would be difficult. (it was also likely, tacitly agreed that this was not a crisis.) (follow-up point, auto-correct suggested i might have meant “nimboo panic.” it does fit.)

the ice idea remained promising but how to dissolve all the ingredients on the spot? a friend (thanks, @urmy_shukla!) pointed out that sugar was particularly difficult to mix, given the temperature of the drink. simple syrup presented itself as a solution (ha!). so, in the end, i had frozen lemon cubes and frozen ice tea cubes (in hopes of nimboo pani palmers (go deacs) catching on, but must admit that brown ice has limited appeal, especially in a place where water quality and sanitation are such a serious concerns. perhaps green tea represents a future way forward.) so, people could drop lemon cubes into their glasses of water, which worked out well. i had bowls of rock salt, ground cumin, and ground ginger out so that people could salt and spice their drinks as per their own taste buds. and, i made plain and cardamom simple syrup, which veered slightly towards caramelized but seemed to be ok. this set-up was also good but there is at least one person in our midst who does not agree that drinks should be salty or spicy ever. i may have needed to add a little instruction on how sweet simple syrup is, as @sg402 discovered with VERY sweet nimboo pani.

anyway, party was a success, make-your-own nimboo pani seemed to be a success — so, the world’s problems are nearly solved. basil simple syrup will be pursued in the future.

please do be impressed that i smuggled two public health references into this post.


*a problem with blog-writing is that any word can be a rabbit hole. in typing “antidote,” i wondered if at any time “dote” was used to mean “poison,” in which case, antidote would be a sensible word. “dote” in the sense that we use it now, seems to be derived from the word for foolish. implies that dotum comes from the greek “to give,” so that antidote was “to give against.” there you go.


see wound, insert (new, improved, foreign) salt

perhaps like many people in public health, i take the fortification of salt with iodine – the prevention of several thyroid-related disorders and the widespread return of the neck ruff – as one of public/global health’s major achievements. up there with smallpox, water treatment (for sanitation and potentially with fluoride) and really-we-are-nearly-there-but-stuff-keeps-happening polio. 

the WHO declared a universal salt iodization strategy in 1993 (in quito, if you try to keep up with the location-names of these declarations). there have been recent successes in central asia, among other places, in reversing the cognitive and other negative effects of iodine deficiency. iodization of salt is an appealing strategy to promoting public health because it requires very little effort from front-line workers or potential users. fortification is a neat, technocratic solution to a serious problem. people use salt regularly, out of necessity (though often use more than is necessary), and – viola! – unconsciously ingest something extra that’s good for them. salt’s pretty important; of course, it used to be traded for gold (and human beings) and as a recent poetic-wax highlighted, salt is constitutive of human emotions and activities, in the form of sweat and tears. and, though i am not sure it has inspired poetry (perhaps among campers?), iodine has to be ingested because human bodies do not produce it on their own though they need it.

but iodization is a technocratic solution only right up till you recognize the politics behind it (as with most technical solutions to development). it had not fully registered to me until i re-read kurlansky’s salt – despite the proliferation of a rainbow of artisanal and heirloom sea salts, rock salts, probably moon salts, at whole foods and trader joe’s – precisely what mass iodization meant for local salt works around the world. kurlansky notes that country decisions to ban non-iodized salt are “popular with health authorities, doctors and scientists, but very unpopular with small independent salt producers.” India banned iodized salt in 1998, only to repeal the ban in 2000. among other arguments for repeal, the ban went against “Gandhi’s assertion that every Indian had a right to make salt.” oops. that old controlling-salt-production-is-and-always-has-been-super-political thing.

kurlansky suggests that small salt works have neither the money nor the knowledge to iodize their own salt up to government standards, so good salt comes from large national manufacturers and from outside. but deficits of knowledge and money are generally fixable problems, so this answer to combating iodine deficiency seems… deficient. 

partly, at issue is the silo-ed approach to development, where very few projects link directly with national strategies for economic development, though many projects note that poverty reduction and growth promotion *are* national priorities. we might just skip the contents of their actual strategy. we talk about country ownership (hey paris, hey accra), we talk about local capacity-building, we talk about alignment with, say, national health and education priorities, but we don’t talk enough about furthering development through all these projects by buying local (meaning more than that one shirt you bought from that one women’s co-op that one time you were visiting that one project in that one country — which especially doesn’t count if that project was focused on SMEs or entrepreneurship and your shirt is not from one of them).

we don’t, i believe, talk as much as we should about the use of locally manufactured products in global health and development projects more generally. there are, to be sure, political and economic difficulties to a work-local-buy-local approach, since donor countries also have national self-interest to consider. and there are technical and logistical difficulties because many places arguably in need of development projects also don’t have manufacturing processes that are up to global standards, perhaps coddled too long by import substitution strategies that did not have an eye towards exporting and competing. it would take time and effort to build local production capacity and supply chains — and we need to work quickly!

so, health commodities come in, building materials come in, food supplies come in, machinery and equipment comes in, often human capital comes in — and development is meant to logically follow. but bringing stuff ‘in’ has big implications for local livelihoods. a comment this week about a large development project in timor-leste describes the “lost opportunity” of not using local materials that would support local employment or small businesses. earlier this year, julie walz and vijaya ramachandran at cgd wrote about promoting local procurement in haiti, noting that this would do “double duty” by “purchas[ing] immediately needed goods or services [and helping] grow the private sector, creat[ing] jobs, and encourag[ing] entrepreneurs.”

two-birds, one stone sounds pretty good. so… can we start talking about this as part of the post-2015 discussions? over probably-not-iodized but tres-good gourmet sel gris popcorn? it supports this adorable old french salt harvester.


corn as small things: all maize is corn but not all corn is maize?

i think i just made a minor life breakthrough. i am working on re-reading ‘salt‘ – at least i thought i was re-reading it but it doesn’t seem as familiar as it should, so maybe i am just reading it.

over the past several years, a troubling thing would sometimes happen. i would go to a museum in europe (like the digs under geneva) or read a food history* and the author would mention ‘corn’ at a time that should have significantly pre-dated european contact with north america, and therefore, mention of maize in the ‘old world.’ i found this deeply confusing. sometimes i thought the author would go on to reveal that vikings or the basque had actually brought maize back from their early voyages and really rock my world.

but the authors were always silent and my brain would hurt.

however, mr. kurlansky tells me, “it was the 17th-century English who gave corned beef its name – corn being any kind of small bits, in this case, salt crystals.’

corn seems to just be a synonym for small things and sometimes used as a generic word for grain (e.g., which suggests it was the term for the most common grain in the region).

is this just my american english (or just my modern english) failing me?

*i really enjoy these commodity-specific histories – spice** and tea*** and all the rest. i know it is trendy but i hope it is a lasting one; it lets a history span geographic space and time frame without being too overwhelming.

**i first read spice around the time i was really digging into orientalism; nice pairing. not a very difficult one to figure out, either, but thought i would mention it!

*** i just found several additional tea histories while looking up that link. hooray! recommendations always welcome.