The paan — a green betel leaf, folded into a tight, triangular package the size and shape of a child’s paper football — lies in the palm of your hand, fragrant and bulging.
You should know what’s inside it, because you watched the animated elderly man behind the counter build it, step by step. First, he laid the betel leaf — large, green, shaped like a spade — on the counter. Then, he took a pinch of sugar-coated cardamom seeds and a dozen more pinches of a dozen more spices and arranged them with care down the central stem. He added a dollop of chewy-looking white jelly, followed by drizzles from three different little jars of syrup. Finally, he folded everything up, wrapped it in cellophane, and handed it to you.
Shaylesh, one of your guides, is beaming with expectation. “You put the whole thing in your mouth at once,” he explains.
You try; it can’t possibly fit.
“The whole thing,” Shaylesh insists. “It folds up.”
You comply. At first, you taste only the green, fibrous leaf.
And then, the fun begins.
You’re on the Secret Food Tour of Indian eateries on London’s East Side, headed up Brick Lane. Thanks to the thriving Banglideshi community, the sidewalks are lined with restaurants, bakeries, and sweetshops.
You could have come here yourself, debating the honesty of the signage (every shop proclaims itself a Master Chef award winner) and the sincerity of the touts (“Best Indian food in London, sir. I swear. Everyone knows it.”) for yourself. But instead, you’ve come with Shaylesh and Raj, who steer you from place to place, guided as much by childhood memories (“I have to say it, but the lamb curry at this place is better than my mother’s!”) as they are by any other agenda.
Their instincts serve you well. At your first stop — a joint with no seating, where food is heaped in the windows — you’re drawn to what you know: the pakora, or clumps of spinach and potato dipped in batter and deep-fried.
But Shay reminds you that you’ve eaten this a dozen times at Indian restaurants back home — so why not have dhokla today?
Heaped on a platter in a display, dhokla looks a bit like fluffy yellow hunks of scrambled egg, dusted with green garnish. You grab a square. You dunk it in the sweet, hot chutney. You’re surprised: it has a light consistency, but tastes a bit like sweet cornbread.
There are others goodies to try — the pakora made with fried onions, for example — but it’s time to move on. At the next stop, there’s dosa masala: a giant savory crepe filled with potato and served with coconut chutney.
At the Eastern Eye Balti House, there’s lamb pathia (hot lamb curry) with channa masala on the side and soft, steaming discs of garlic naan. At the sweet shop, you sample the deep-fried, syrup-soaked gulab jamun and the slightly less sweet, bright-orange ladoo — desserts so laden with sugar that one bite is all you can manage before your pancreas releases a shockwave of insulin.
And now, you’re at the Lahore Kebab House — in business since the 1970’s, despite the unlikely location in a warehousey section of the East Side. You stop on the first floor to see the open kitchen, where two dozen kitchen staff move a breakneck speed past huge, bubbling cauldrons of curry and open grills bristling with sharp, bright flames.
Upstairs, the noise of the crowd in the dining room is deafening. Between bites of savory seek kebabs and chunks of red chili paneer (cheese, soaked in red chili pepper and stir-fried with tender strips of onion), everyone is swilling beer and screaming at the top of his lungs.
And this is where Shaylesh produces the paan. He has joked about paan several times tonight — saying, “In the five minutes it takes you to eat this, Clyde will finally be able to get a word in edgewise” and “If you have something you want to say to someone without being interrupted, you give them a paan to chew before you start.”
As instructed, you pop the whole thing in your mouth. At first, there’s only the salad taste: the bitter green flavor of the betel leaf itself. And then — suddenly, violently — the stuff in the middle of the little package erupts. It’s not spicy or hot. But saying merely that the flavor is minty doesn’t do justice to what you’re experiencing.
You feel as though you have an entire garden of mint in your mouth — several hundred pounds of bright green leaves. You are eating the world’s largest air freshener … or a Douglas fir salad dressed with Scope and Listerine … or a football-sized urinal cake.
At the same time, the packet in your mouth is expanding. You chew and chew, but this only increases the rate of growth. In the middle of all that moist, minty green, little seeds are swimming around between your teeth and gums. The mint subsides a bit — only to be replaced by a rush of sugar.
You fight your way through this. At five minutes in, you consider spitting everything out — but realize you have no napkin. So you sip water, washing down bits and pieces and seeds and stems. You keep chewing. At seven minutes, you have most of it stuffed in your cheeks; you’ve become a chipmunk, but you’re a chipmunk with the best breath in the universe.
At ten minutes, you can finally speak.
Outside, headed home, the summer air is sweet and cool and rare (especially for London). The streets are packed with young people in leather and ripped t-shirts and thigh-high boots, streaming toward clubs. Tight crowds of buddies stand outside the pubs, pints of beer in their hands, arguing over football and office politics and women.
You can still taste the paan. The intensity has receded, but the freshness lingers in your mouth, and there is a glow in your belly that makes you feel lit from within.
The man you love most in the entire world is beside you, and as you ride the lift up to the fifth floor of the Doubletree by Hilton at the Tower of London, you feel stuffed and sleepy and exhausted. (And your breath is amazing.)
You know that, by any measure, you are very lucky. You are perhaps the luckiest person in all the world.