Coffee, Bournvita, or Horlicks?

…asked my mother hospitably, when our friends Kiran and Jagdeep dropped in of an evening.

I could see the surprise on their faces. While in South India, it is perfectly normal to offer drinks like Bournvita, Horlicks or Ovaltine to guests, it is definitely unusual in the North. Nevertheless, they opted for Horlicks and enjoyed the beverage…they had not partaken of it for decades! In fact, so taken were they with the idea that they went out and bought a bottle for regular use at home!

These beverages were part and parcel of our growing-up years. So great was the belief in the abilities of these drinks to aid our growth, health and well-being that bottles of Horlicks and at least one of the other malted, cacao-flavoured drink were permanent fixtures in the larder. And partaken not just by the children, old and sick, but everyone in between as a change from coffee or tea. And of course, offered to guests in some parts of the country!

What are these drinks which are (were?) such an integral part of our lives?

Actually, India is as integral to Horlicks, as Horlicks is to India. We are the largest market for the drink in the world! The origins of the drink go back almost 150 years to 1873 when James Horlick, a pharmacist, along with his brother William, founded a company called J & W Horlicks in Chicago to manufacture a patented malted milk drink. Originally it was positioned as an infant and invalid food; then added old people and travelers in its target; and in the early 20th century was sold as a meal replacement drink. As far as the India story is concerned, it was brought back to India by our soldiers who were part of the British Indian Army returning from Europe after fighting in the First World War. People in the Punjab, Bengal and Madras presidencies quickly took to it, and it was a status symbol in the 1940s and ‘50s. While there was only one type of Horlicks for many decades, today we have not only a plethora of flavours—from elaichi to kesar baadam, we also have age and gender segmented products!

One distinctive characteristic of Horlicks was that it just would not dissolve! What a lot of stirring it took! The strategy was to spoon the powder into the glass, pour in a little super-hot water, and stir and stir. One interrupted the stirring with small breaks of trying to mash the lumps with the back of the spoon against the side of the glass. Only after about five minutes of all this would the glass be filled up with hot milk and/or water. And even with all this effort, there would be lumps left at the bottom when one finished!

This was not such a problem with the other popular drinks.

Compared to Horlicks, Bournvita is much more recent, having been developed in the late 1920s, and entering the Indian market only in 1948. This malted chocolate drink mix was invented by Cadbury and got its name from Bournville, the model village developed by the Cadbury factory. The original recipe included full-cream milk, fresh eggs, malt and chocolate  and was positioned as a health drink.

Ovaltine was developed in Switzerland, where it is known by its original name Ovomaltine (from ovum, Latin for “egg”, and malt).  It came to the UK in 1909, where a misspelling of the name on the trademark registration application led to the name being shortened to Ovaltine. And the name stuck in English-speaking markets. Originally advertised as consisting solely of “malt, milk, eggs, flavoured with cocoa”, it has changed the contents and formulation over the years. In India and the UK, it no longer contains eggs.

Complan, unlike the others, is made entirely of milk protein, and was developed in the UK in 1942, during the Second World War, as an easy-to-carry nutritious drink-mix for soldiers during battle where they take only very limited dry ration. It was launched in India in 1964.

Another lesser-known drink was Ragimalt, of which I can find no trace today. The violent orange drink was lapped by pre-teens but was way too sweet for anyone else.

Many of these drink mixes have stopped being sold in many countries—for instance, Bournvita was discontinued in the UK in 2008. With changing fads and tastes, with changing understanding of nutrition, with newer allergies which seem to prevent our children from eating and drinking what was basic a few decades ago, with trends like veganism, one wonders how long these drink-mixes will be around.

Maybe time to go out and buy a few bottles before it is too late?

–Meena

3 thoughts on “Coffee, Bournvita, or Horlicks?

  1. I have been witness to, and participant in all three generations of drinks. I have distant childhood memories of Ovaltine; at one stage in my life I consumed lashings of Naya Elaichi Horlicks; and my children were packed off to school fortified by Bournvita! Complan also featured, for elderly parents. And all the bottles, carefully saved, still hold all my masalas, dals, and pickles. Mamata

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  2. I remember this so well, Meena! And Horlicks continues to be part of our larder till today. In fact I just ordered a huge jar or chocolate flavoured Horlicks a few days ago. it is now a tasty health drink for my mother in place of her morning tea, and for me it continues to be one of my favourite beverages in the winter.

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