Food

The Roots of Pallonji’s Raspberry Soda: A Parsi Heritage

Pallonji's raspberry soda holds a special place in the hearts of the dwindling Parsi community and Irani cafes. This fizzy beverage evokes a sense of nostalgia that transports individuals back in time with its vibrant red colour and delicious sweetness.

July 15, 2023: Besides Pallonji’s raspberry soda’s distinctive taste, the Parsis contributed significantly to India’s love affair with carbonated drinks.

In the past two centuries, the Parsis have  played a crucial role in popularising and producing these sparkling beverages, laying the foundation for a thriving $8 billion industry.

The Journey of Carbonated Drinks to India

Early in the 1800s, companies like Schweppes introduced plain carbonated water, dubbed a health elixir, as a popular beverage in London. In time, flavoured variants like lemon, orange, and raspberry emerged. Eventually, soda reached India across the oceans. At first, it was a luxury enjoyed by British residents. The first “aerated water” factory in Mumbai was established by chemist Henry Rogers in 1837, marking the beginning of the fizzy era in Western India.

Fizzing Away Filthy Water Woes

As Mumbai relied on contaminated well water, carbonated beverages became more than refreshing refreshments. Soda’s carbonic acid can rid the body of bacteria and viruses, making it a life-saving habit for residents. Moreover, introducing carbonated tonic water containing quinine for treating malaria enhanced these effervescent drinks’ appeal and health benefits.

Parsis Seize the Commercial Opportunity

Having already established businesses catering to the British, Parsis saw potential in the fizzy drinks British colonists enjoyed. Whether it was serving the army as commissaries or owning hotels and “Europe shops,” soda was an integral part of their business. There is a fascinating tale about a Parsi settler arriving in Ahmednagar on a mule with a soda-making machine to quench the thirst of British soldiers. The Parsis entered the soda industry with this entrepreneurial spirit.

Trendsetters and Cultural Shift

Embracing the fizzy delights themselves, Parsis became trendsetters for other Indians who were initially sceptical. For instance, orthodox Hindus once considered Rogers lemonade a sin. However, soda-water shops flourished within a few decades in Mumbai. Iranians ran many. More than 150 soda factories were licensed in the city by 1913, making Parsi critical players in a burgeoning industry.

Soda’s Cultural Impact and Turbulent Times

In erstwhile Bombay, soda was more than a refreshment, and it became deeply woven into the fabric of the city’s culture. During mass protests against Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s conviction, it even played a role in political developments. The popularity of raspberry soda during the unrest was highlighted at one Irani stall. Soda bottles were wielded as weapons during riots, underscoring its socio-political significance.

Flourishing Parsi Soda Empires

Coke and Pepsi were not the first multinational companies to make soda, but several Parsi enterprises thrived. Pallonji’s, established in 1865, and Duke’s, founded two decades later, emerged as renowned brands. Their soda businesses expanded beyond Mumbai to cities such as Kolkata and Calicut. As a result of these entrepreneurial endeavours, Parsi brands in Singapore competed for dominance through Chinese and Malay advertising.

The Bubbly Elixir Elevating Parsi Celebrations

A Parsi wedding, Navjotes (thread ceremonies), milestone birthdays, and vibrant social gatherings were complete with Pallonji’s Raspberry Soda. These fizzy beverages elevated the festive atmosphere by adding taste and tradition to Parsi celebrations. From toasting newlyweds at weddings to accompanying traditional delicacies served at Navjotes, Pallonji’s soda added a touch of joy and merriment.

Challenges and Marginalized Operations

While Parsi soda companies were influential, they operated on a small scale, dealing with thin profit margins and hyper-localized brand loyalty. Glass bottles were more expensive than their contents, which presented a significant challenge to the bottle supply. Round-bottomed bottles sometimes encouraged customers to consume sodas quickly and recycle them.

The Rise of Multinationals and Changing Tides

Multinational giants and intense competition in the 1950s disrupted many Parsi soda businesses. In 1992, after India’s market was liberalized, Coca-Cola and Pepsi gained dominance and reshaped the industry. In 1994, Pepsi’s acquisition of Duke’s raspberry soda led to Duke’s demise, leaving a void for Parsi soda enthusiasts.

A Retro Resurgence and a Hopeful Future

Traditional Parsi soda brands have faced challenges, but there is optimism for their revival. Pallonji’s owner PV Solanki has observed increased interest from beyond the Parsi community as newcomers embrace raspberry soda as a retro drink. Dishoom, a trendy restaurant in London, has begun serving the beverage. Globally, it has reached London and gained popularity beyond borders. The enduring charm of Pallonji continues to be evident through the enthusiastic customer calls the company receives.

With its unique taste and rich cultural heritage, Pallonji’s raspberry soda offers a delightful and fizzy experience. The Parsis have profoundly impacted the soda industry in India, from pioneering carbonated drinks to shaping it. Despite the changing landscape, Pallonji’s raspberry soda symbolizes the past and hope for the future.

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