I pressed my lips together in a vain effort to keep the gooey liquid from running down my chin. Cheeks bursting, I attempted to chew. I shifted my gaze, avoiding the eyes of my Mother-in-law-to-be and the Paanwala who were both looking at me inquisitively wondering, Well, does she like it?
Gulp. I swallowed a bit of the bitter, gooey stuff and managed a half smile.
I admit, I hadn’t known what I was getting myself into. Varun’s Mom and I had taken a walk in the “cool” of the evening to visit shops near their neighborhood in Delhi. I was enjoying the smells of dusk: roti cooking, dust settling and heat soaking into the scorched earth. When we stopped at a vendor, I stood idly by watching children and dogs head for home in the twilight. Varun’s mom placed something in my hand and I nonchalantly ate it.
A word to the wise: when traveling, inquire before consuming. Not doing so can land you in some sticky situations. This is how I found myself struggling to chew and swallow, smiling and unsure.
This, I learned later, was paan. Paan is used as a breath freshener as well as a source of enjoyment and relaxation. It contains acrea nut wrapped in betel leaf along with many other things added in. It was originally consumed among royalty but now is popular not only in South Asia but also in Malaysia, Indonesia and many other countries. While it often contains tobacco, there are myriad recipes and combinations. To me, it looks like candy.
How did I like it? To be honest, it was bitter, syrupy and rather cumbersome to chew. I was unaware that I was to spit the red juice out onto the sidewalk. As we continued our walk through the winding streets and into the twilight, I considered my options. Spit the whole thing out? Gulp it down? What about the sticky mess dripping down my face?
Looking back, I’m sure I would have discreetly spit the entire thing out. However at the time, I was intent on impressing my Mother-in-law-to-be and was paranoid of committing cultural faux-pas. So, with tears in my eyes, I swallowed the mixture of…actually, I don’t know what.
I swore paan off for life. Everytime we went to the Punjabi market in Vancouver, Varun would look longingly at Paan shops. I felt nauseated and suggested we buy samosas instead. (He agreed, of course. Who can resist samosas?!)
But now I’m having second thoughts. Last week, at the India Bazaar in Toronto, I saw the ingredients for paan laid out in a Paandaani. They looked so colorful, innocent and delectable. I think, perhaps, it’s time to try paan again. This time, I’ll be sure get clear instructions from Varun and bring a stash of napkins to deal with the stickiness.