I Learned to Love Paan, and You Should Too, Starting with This Week's Review
The first time I encountered the small, triangular-shaped parcel I was in New York. Some friends of mine were stupid enough to take my recommendation that we arrive by train at 6 a.m., order chaat and chai at Lahori Kabab, and continue a 24-hour curry crawl through multiple boroughs before hopping back in the train and heading home.
A small corner stand in Jackson Heights sold the foil-wrapped digestive, and after a heavy lunch of chili chicken, I needed something to settle my stomach. If you've ever grabbed a handful of fennel seeds on your way out of an Indian restaurant, you're familiar with the sensation. Sweet paan builds on that principle, stuffing a leaf with those same fennel seeds, coconut, cloves, dates and rose syrup.
Paan is traditionally made with betel leaf and filled with slivers of areca nut, which acts as a mild stimulant. But in the States, tobacco paan is sold as a substitute. This is what I bought, chewed, and swallowed a portion of in Jackson Heights. I thought I might die.
Because I'm a glutton for punishment, that same day I ordered the sweet paan at a small chaat house in Manhattan. And when I spotted the foil pouches in a small container next to the register at a chaat house in Irving recently, I was happy to see them.
When my friend first unwrapped the package that keeps the parcel together, she was confused. "I eat the whole thing?" she asked. "Pop the whole thing in your mouth, and slowly chew it till you can choke it down," I responded -- hardly a ringing endorsement.
Upon biting through the leaf, you're first greeted with a syrupy sweetness. Then, fennel and other spice flavors begin to dominate. After a while, clove takes over, filling your nose with spice and numbing your tongue, while you continue to masticate what is now a fibrous, sticky, mouthful of pulp.
It's at just this point that you become pretty sure that eating paan is a very bad idea. You may lightly sweat. My friend looked displeased, even upset. And then, like a fast summer storm, the madness ends. You swallow the remaining portion, and bask in a licorice-flavored haze and a newly settled stomach. It's awesome.
You can get paan at the counter at the Taj Chaat House, which shares space in this week's review with Amruth, a second Indian restaurant located in the same strip mall. Don't worry about repeating the nauseating error I committed in New York. Tobacco paan is not sold here -- just the good stuff.