While intricacies of the diverse Indian culinary heritage has been documented by means of hardbound books and documentary series by Michelin starred chefs world over, there is one tiny aspect of the quintessential Indian meal that most people tend to look over; the post-meal “mukhwas” or mouth fresheners.
And that is what I am going to impress upon today.
Mukhwas as a meal staple is not something I was too familiar with growing up, but during my two month vacation stint in India every year, it was definitely something I came across everywhere. To further clarify, as varied as the Indian meal you are served at a restaurant may be, it is almost tradition for all these restaurants to serve mukhwas at the end of it, or with your bill.
A coin term for many things, the most common being roasted aniseed, mukhwas is touted to offer digestive benefits to its consumer, while giving them a refreshing, almost minty aftertaste. The manner of presenting this has varied from aniseed alone to (quite literally) sugarcoating it, or if you’re a step above, serving “meetha paan” which is a betel leaf stuffed with aniseed, preserved rose petals in sugar syrup, saffron and any other aromatics of the restaurant’s choosing.
All this being said, you needn’t depend on restaurants alone to get your digestive fix. Metropolitans like Mumbai and Kolkata have dedicated street stalls (usually outside big restaurants) serving their versions of meetha paan, which a large number of people relish, mouths full and smiles wide at all the sugary, minty-ness within.
But in the food industry, every now and then a person is bound to come along and make it an art form. Even if its just the humble paan we’re talking about.
I was in Pune to celebrate Holi with some family friends recently, and when they mentioned stepping out for paan after lunch. I’m not a huge paan fan, but still trudged along to be met with quite an unexpected surprise- a paan “boutique”
Yes. I wasn’t lying you guys.
Naad Paan Boutiques have opened up in quite a few places in and around Maharashtra and Rajasthan, offering freshly made paan with different herbs and spices, each aimed at aiding digestion as well as curing a bunch of other ailments.
The menu boasts of a huge list of paans on offer, which include:
Ice Paan: Where crushed ice has been favoured with a rose and aniseed syrup and filled in a betel leaf.
Fire Paan: Because hey, if ice, why not fire? Filled with aromatics like cardamom and cloves to heal any sinus or throat issues, a tiny amount of camphor is added to this paan and then set on fire. The mother who sampled this particular one was absolutely terrified at the idea of having to swallow the fire, but on having it said it only adds a slight warmth to the contents within and was very enjoyable.
Gold Paan: Retailing at a hefty INR 3500 for one, it is filled with saffron and gold dust, supposedly directed at curing joint problems and arthritis, we were told the body is capable of digesting only one of these a month and that they have a dedicated number of customers who come in for their dose of luxury every month.
But all exotic ones aside, we asked the kind man at the boutique for his regular meetha paan, and that was an experience in itself.
Filled with a rose petal jam, grated coconut, roasted aniseed and their special- a storemade orange chutney, the mouthful was an explosion of flavour- you get the tang from the orange, the sweetness from the rose and the fresh coconut in between.
And if this wasn’t enough, he gave us a smaller paan filled with a raat ki rani (night blooming jasmine) jam to eat with the main paan, and I swear my taste buds haven’t encountered a total rollercoaster of flavours like they did at that moment.
The jam immediately hits your palate, with its strong and sweet floral notes, and then it is followed by a refereshing mint aftertaste- a perfect accompaniment to the orange of the main paan.
And they say this absolutely delicious masterpiece is actually good for me.
If this isn’t a win-win, I don’t know what is.