Paan: My best kept secret

A little over a year ago I was vacationing on a small Indian island off the shores of Gujrat province. My cousin was getting married and I was there to represent her eldest uncle as best I could. Though the pomp of the week long event was an education in traditions I still needed a few minutes to myself everyday to recharge for the inevitable questions of when I would get married.

My guilty pleasure was going to the paan shop located a stones-throw away from my great uncle's general store to avoid more matrimonial grilling. Relaxed, I'd walk up to the vendor's stall and ask for "ake meetha (one sweet) paan" in my least western accent. The vendor was clearly on to me but still he took the time to prepare the treat for a mere 10 Rupees (30 cents). I'd spend the next 15 minutes or so sitting on someone's stoop contently chewing my paan.

Now a year removed I don't talk much about the trip but I still get questioned on authentic Indian cuisine. Friends ask me about pakoras, tandoori and I know how heavenly butter chicken can be. But I've always kept paan as my own little secret, until today.

The flavour is hard to describe. The betel leaf is filled with aromatic candied cardomom seeds, coconut, preserved fruit, and a couple sweet pastes. The taste is on the strong side so eating requires a bit of skill, some patience and is usually done after a meal to cleanse the palate.

The trick is to take the entire tightly-wrapped paan, if you're lucky it'll be about the size of a small Post-it note, tuck it into the back corner of your mouth between your cheek and teeth and slowly begin to chew on the leaf. Continue chewing slowly and don't be afraid to swallow from time to time. This isn't chaw!

I ended up going to Gujrat Sweets & Confectioners to get my fix for a dollar but the best paan I've had in Toronto has always come from the shops behind the little food stalls on Gerrard St. E.

Gujrat Sweets & Confectioners
1000 Danforth Ave.

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