Friday, September 16, 2011

'Nicki! No! Don't Eat That!' Farmers' Market Adventures at Weekly Open Thread

Posted By on Fri, Sep 16, 2011 at 5:11 AM

A tidy bundle of pan from Shreeji Market
  • A tidy bundle of "pan" from Shreeji Market.
It's Night Market tonight at the Nashville Farmers Market — the most fun grocery shopping in town, because you know what good things you'll find, and there's always something unexpected.

Like last week, browsing the extensive freezers and refrigerators at Shreeji International Market in the Farmers Market. It's like a treasure hunt — so many exotic frozen vegetables, and lots of frozen Indian dishes plus frozen parathas and naans for a quick Indian dinner.

At the end of the refrigerated cases I spotted a tray labeled "sweet pan." Bolt of discovery excitement! Never seen this for sale before! Know what it is! Must try! I plucked a foil-wrapped paan.

Paan, a mixture of nuts and spices rolled into a betel leaf, is chewed like tobacco in locales from India east to Indonesia. Vietnam has a paan traditon, too. Sweet paan, a combination of fruits and fennel seeds, is used as an after-meal chew for its flavor and breath-cleansing properties. I needed a little of that after Arnold Myint's powerfully garlicky eggplant salad from AM@FM.

Behold! The paan uncovered.
  • Behold! The paan uncovered.
"This paan ... it has ... a different taste," offered the clerk. Since I don't know what paan is supposed to taste like, I figured he was trying to tell me it was an unusual product.

"I know what it is, more or less. I'm getting it." Talk to the hand, South Asian gentleman—this paan is going home in my bag!

I unwrapped my prize in the car: an emerald betel leaf folded around scented, candy-colored nuts, seeds and bits of mysterious Eastern things. It was, hmm, much bigger than I expected, much bigger than a quid of chewing tobacco. But oh well! No one's watching — here goes! I stuffed the green wodge into my cheek.

I will confess that I had no idea the skin of my cheek could stretch as far as it did to hold the enormous paan. But wow, the flavors of the paan. Sweet, perfumey. Little fine shavings of something sandalwood-y or cinnamon-y. Small flat chewy seeds with an interesting texture. Something with a coconutty crunch.

I stopped at a stoplight and a police car pulled up in the next lane. I casually covered my cheek with my hand — I didn't want to explain. The officer could doubtless see how squinched-up my left eye was from the bulge below. The paan was starting to be a nuisance.

And a little weird. Once I identified the perfumey scent, it seemed to have the same scent as whatever substance is used for scenting shampoo. But nicely sweet; it seemed like it was doing a good job on the breath-cleansing front.

By the time I arrived at my next errand, the paan had shrunk a little in size, but still too big to chaw while I ran into another shop. Out it came. My mouth was relieved, but I was left with a wad of exotic spices to throw away.

Apparently this is a problem in India — wads of chewed betel leaf on the sidewalk. I didn't throw it on the sidewalk. But I did spend time wandering around in search of a trash can where I could inconspicuously ditch it — again, I didn't want questions.

A buck and a quarter for a culinary adventure — it was a little strange, but that's what I wanted.

What was your culinary adventure for the week? And what's on your shopping list for the Night Market?

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