Saturday, January 21, 2006

Food Adventure: Mitha Paan (with photos!)

Every 10 meters there was another one along the street...

A guy standing behind a small, portable table with lots of little silver metal jars and containers. In the center of each is a silver tray with a pile of green waxy leaves and loose tooth picks. And I was dying to find out what it all was!!!

It was paan, and then I was nearly a pawn in the paan game as Rahul the paan-wallah (worker) made me some of the sweet delicacy in dramatic, hilarious fashion. Paan is an Indian delicacy-cum-addiction and the reason so many people are spitting in the streets, or giving you directions with their mouth full.

In many restaurants around India, we've been handed a jar or bowl of seeds that include a mix of anise and fennel to crunch about for digestion, but on the streets of Bombay, they take paan to an artful level. Gorgeous little leaf packets held together with toothpicks, and occasionally flower petals or bits of edible silver, are everywhere for a post meal purchase. They're actually two kinds too: mitha paan is sweet while another type of paan has tobacco, addictive betel nut or if you're really rich or connected, opium.

Since I was neither and have a sweet tooth, I went for mitha. And Rahul, my paan-wallah, was happy to indulge my first taste with a grand show.

Rahul placed a fresh betel leaf on his silver tray and then started opening jars for me to smell and view like a mad apothecary. One silver container had pink rose powder while the other smelled more menthol than Vick's Vapor Rub. Another whiff was black licorice (gross!) and then I breathed the comforts of cinnamon, cardamon and clove.

After this sniff-o-rama, Rahul rubbed fresh lime paste on the leaf, then sprinkled in some fresh coconut, betel nut and a potpourri of the spices. I wasn't sure what I was in for, but he was so animated and funny, and men were lined up around the cart watching him and me that I knew I had to have a big, fat bite.

With an artist's flourish, he handed over the leaf packet and waited for me to savor. So I bit down and chewed, sinking my teeth through leaf, spices, betel and more. It was actually quite good and refreshing, a definite party for my mouth...and then ultimately, my stomach. I wasn't sure whether to swallow or not, but Andy was smart and questioned that maneuver so after we'd thanked Rahul and walked off, we quickly looked it up in the guidebook--and noticed paan-puddles in the street. Alas, it's not for swallowing but oh well -- the gullible traveler occasionally swallows everything!!! :P

Please click here for the photo gallery!:


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