There are several things that still separate an Indian-American from an Indian from India even in this globalized world: accents and educational systems come to mind, as do sports or movie preferences. These differences may be real, but they are also amorphous. However, we can point to something much more tangible in nature. Perhaps no single thing in the world is a more perfect epitome of the separation between Indian-Americans and their cousins from the motherland than a dark black, foamy-headed sweet and effervescent liquid drink called root beer. In my lifetime, I’ve found that Indians categorically hate this drink, while most Americans of all types including Indian-Americans love this drink.
Having grown up in the American Midwest, where we’d call all manner of fizzy soft drinks “pop,” I have loved root beer for as long as I can remember and probably always will. Widely available commerical brands include A&W, Barq’s, or IBC, and I could drink any of these happily. What’s more, one can place a dollop of vanilla or other ice cream into a glass of root beer, and you get a magical dessert/drink hybrid like no other, known to most Americans as a root beer float. And yet, as much as all-American flavors like french fries, ketchup, pizza, and even colas like Coke and Pepsi have exploded in popularity and affordability in India over the last few decades, root beer is hard to come by. Even Indians who have settled in the United States for decades often won’t ever drink it.
Why??? On the face of it, Indians should love root beer. It’s spicier than most other American colas or soft drinks (with a notable exception in Dr Pepper). Root beer’s traditional historic roots are in the delicious extract of the sassafras tree root or sarsaparilla vine root. As a kid at summer camp, I remember tasting a fresh and hot tea made of sassafras root, an original root beer formula- and it was divine. Root beer is aromatic and has a number of spicy and subtle hints, much like Indian food itself which draws on fraternal spices like cardamom, anise, and cinnamon. I have a theory that Indians typically hate root beer for one simple reason: it reminds them too much of medical products, including a soothing balm called Iodex, a common household item in India. Throughout my life whenever I drank or even mentioned root beer, my Indian-born mother would make a disgusted face, hold her nose and say, “I can’t stand it, smells like Iodex!” I’ve heard similar sentiments over and over by people born and raised in India. Which led me to look into this recently.
Indeed there’s a basis for it. Iodex utilizes methyl salicylate, made of oil extracted from a group of plants called wintergreens or their synthetic equivalent. Commercially produced root beers also use extracts of wintergreens, or very similar plants. Interestingly, just like Coca-Cola, the modern form of root beer was invented in the United States in the 1800’s for medicinal purposes. So, we have come full circle here.
It’s too bad that Iodex has ruined root beer for potentially millions of people in India and other parts of the world. Now you know why. So you say, this isn’t a scientific analysis after all? You must be forgetting that this is Trump’s America now.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor