The coolest drinks may surprise you

August 5, 2007

TEHRAN (AP) -- A summer staple in Iran, dugh can help beat the heat. Sunflower seeds, another Middle Eastern favorite, are a good accompaniment. Hoping to beat the heat with a cool drink? For real refreshment, think yogurt or rosewater. Maybe even a cup of piping hot tea.

Westerners, always looking for the next big thing in beverages, could probably take a lesson from the Middle East. With summer temperatures from Tehran to Cairo reaching well into the triple digits, the art of the cooling drink is a source of pride -- and self-preservation -- in many Middle Eastern homes. Each region has its favorites worth checking out when that carbonated beverage you usually reach for leaves you cold.
Start with rosewater, water in which rose petals have been steeped, as an easy way to dress up regular tap or bottled water. The floral taste is reminiscent of the smell that fills your lungs when you inhale deeply from a rose in full bloom. Common to many Persian and Arab homes, rosewater is probably the most ubiquitously available item in Middle Eastern groceries.
""Rosewater is something that's always there in our foods and beverages,"" says May Bsisu, author of ""The Arab Table: Recipes and Culinary Traditions."" ""Many times, we add it to the drinking water to make it more refreshing. In the olden days, it was very valuable, and when you had special guests and served them this to drink, it meant that you were honoring your guests.""
In Iran, a sweet-and-sour syrup made with vinegar, sugar and fresh mint (called sharbat-e sekanjebin) is mixed with water and grated cucumber, then served over ice. The result is a crunchy, refreshing beverage.
Chilled, savory yogurt drinks also are popular throughout the Middle East. ""Nothing beats a wonderful cold yogurt soup, an abdugh khiar, served with fresh herbs, cucumbers, raisins, nuts, rose petals and some ice cubes floating around in it,"" says Najmieh Batmanglij, an Iranian food writer who has written several books about traditional Iranian cooking.
Arabs enjoy a version called ayran that uses goat's milk yogurt. Middle Eastern beverage traditions have their roots in a culture of hospitality. Many devout Muslims believe they must never let a thirsty person pass their door without offering them water.
""Even in the olden days, in Kuwait and the Persian Gulf States, they would always have some cool water for passers-by that they kept in big clay pots at the gates of their houses,"" Bsisu says.
Many Middle Easterners also believe their cuisines capitalize on an age-old culinary alchemy designed to beat the heat. ""Offering hot tea with sweets to guests, without asking, is a very Persian form of hospitality,"" Batmanglij says. ""It is believed that drinking hot tea in the summer has a cooling effect.""
Hot teas, brewed with mint or cardamom or other aromatics, are consumed year-round in the Middle East.
""Nobody would think that hot tea will cool you down, but it does,"" Bsisu said. But Western food scientists say that commonly held belief doesn't hold water -- or tea.
""I'm aware of the lore around drinking something hot when it's hot out and how that is supposed to cool you,"" says Jennifer Sacheck, an assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition.
The idea is that by consuming hot tea, sweat production will increase and the body's core temperature will be lowered, she says.
""But in reality, the body is not going to be able to counteract the amount of heat that you drink and take in through sweating,"" Sacheck says. ""It has a lot to do with the placebo effect, if people believe it makes them feel good, it catches on and becomes lore.