After a recent lunch outing at Swapna Indian Cuisine off of Cobb Parkway, I decided to try one of their triangles of sweet paan ($2.50) sitting by the cashier. Paan was a tough subject to research. Mainly because I couldn’t figure out the majority of the ingredients in Swapna’s version other than coconut shavings, which were pretty obvious.
Secondly, a lot of the ingredient names that I found in leads were in romanized Hindi. When I would try to pull up the images in google to verify matches, I’d sometimes get images returned of Indian couples that were of the erotic variety. So there I was sitting in a crowded coffee house full of children running around, and I’ve got Indian porn unabashedly displaying on my laptop.
ANYWAYS –The technical name of sweet paan is meetha paan, and it’s not to be confused with its more sinister sibling, tambaku (tobacco) paan. Meetha paan is the sweet dutiful daughter who made straight A’s and never worried her folks by staying out past ten o’clock. Thusly, she is the shiny beacon of her parents’ rearing.
Conversely, when tobacco paan was a teenager, she would get into her parents’ liquor stash any chance she could get. She then started commiserating with other n’er do wells who encouraged her to play hooky from time to time. Needless to say, tobacco paan grew up to become a scourge of urban beautification in countries like India where she is sold all over. Chewers of this paan tend to spit out the deep red juices openly on the street offending passersby, and staining sidewalks and building walls in the process.
The sweet meetha paan I bought contained a generous swab of gulkand (rose petal and sugar paste), coconut shavings, fennel and anise seeds, and mukhwas — a combination of sugar coated fennel and sesame seeds. I have never been a fan of mukhwas. It’s that colorful pebbly stuff in a crystal serving dish that sits all pretty by restaurant doorways with a spoon jutting out of it. When I was a lot younger, I tried a spoonful once and was overtaken by its intense perfume and licorice flavor. I don’t mind either of these flavors in food, but I just don’t like them to be that intense.
Mukhwas was the last thing I was able to identify in Swapna’s meetha paan, and had I known that’s what it was I would have taken a pass. Regardless, I stuck that paan in my mouth and immediately knew it simply wasn’t for me. But I could see how if you don’t mind those flavors it could be an acquired taste.
From what I understand, you don’t spit out the juices like you would the tobacco version. In fact, sweet paan is sometimes taken after meals and meant to be eaten completely. Think of it as a desserty breath freshener and digestif (liquor usually drunk after a meal to aid in digestion). A lot of old world digestifs have that licorice-like anise/fennel agent, and the correlation here can be made as well.
I won’t rule out ever liking this, and maybe after two or fifteen more tries I can learn to appreciate it.
- by Gene Lee, Food and More blog
– Gene Lee writes about International Cuisine for the AJC Dining Team. He also publishes his own blog, Eat, Drink, Man… A Food Journal.