Holi: Thandai (Spiced Almond Milk)

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Now that we’ve changed the clocks forward and spring has begun, I think there’s cause to celebrate, namely, the Nepalese/Indian spring festival Holi that begins today! Holi, also known as the festival of colors because of the vibrant powders that celebrants throw at each other, is a holiday that begins with a bonfire on the day of the full moon, and ends on the following day with a colorful street party. Holi is celebrated worldwide among practicing Hindus and non-Hindus alike (it’s even celebrated here in the San Francisco Bay Area from now until the beginning of April). After all, everyone loves a good street party and it’s even more fun if you get to throw stuff at strangers! However, despite its frivolous atmosphere, it’s also an important religious holiday for sharing with loved ones, forgetting past transgressions, and celebrating the spring harvest.

The legend behind the holiday goes like this… There was once an indestructible demon king named Hiranayakashipu who had an evil sister named Holika and a virtuous son named Prahlada. Prahlada was a devotee of Lord Vishnu, which made him subject to the abuse of his evil father. One day, Prahlada’s aunt Holika convinced him to sit with her on a funeral pyre with the intention of burning him to death. She was wearing a cloak that protected her from the fire, but as the bonfire grew, the cloak flew off of her and onto Prahlada, saving his life and allowing Holika to burn to death. Afterwards, Lord Vishnu appeared and killed the demon king Hiranayakashipu, and the festival of Holi (named after the evil aunt Holika) came to symbolize new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil.

There are many traditional foods that are associated with Holi that vary by region, but I decided to make the refreshing drink called Thandai, a kind of spiced almond milk that is also enjoyed during the summer because of its cooling properties. I found that there are many variations of Thandai, each with different methods and ingredients, so I tried to keep it as authentic as I could. Just keep in mind that if you don’t like a particular spice, like saffron or melon seeds, you can simply omit them or adjust the quantity to your liking. You may not be a practicing Hindu, but I think you can still find enjoyment in this sweet and spicy drink and some lessons in the celebration of Holi.

Thandai (Yield: 2 servings)

2 cups milk
4 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of saffron strands
12 almonds
6 cashews
6 pistachios
½ tablespoon melon seed (kharbooj)
½ tablespoon white poppy seeds (khuskhus)
½ tablespoon fennel
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2-3 green cardamom or a pinch of cardamom powder
1 teaspoon rosewater


  1. Soak almonds, cashews, pistachios, and melon seeds for 2 hours in a little bit of water. Once soaked, strain and set aside.
  2. Blend the poppy seeds, fennel, pepper, and cardamom into a fine powder.
  3. Measure one cup of milk and set aside.
  4. Blend the almonds, cashews, pistachios, and melon seeds into a paste. Add a little bit of milk if necessary and continue blending until well combined. Add the remaining milk and ground spices and blend. Allow to steep for 10 minutes.
  5. Strain the spices from the liquid with a fine sieve, making sure to press the spice mixture with a spoon to extract the spices. Once strained, add the remaining spices in the sieve to the blender, along with the extracted liquid, and blend again for 1 minutes. Strain a second time and reserve the extracted liquid.
  6. Measure out one more cup of milk. Bring to a boil on medium heat. Allow to boil for 1 minute, then remove from heat and add sugar and saffron strands. Mix and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  7. Strain saffron milk into the spiced milk. Add rosewater and mix. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Garnish with rose petals, pistachios, or saffron strands.

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