Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Peter Paan and the lost boys

Published 28 Mar, 2016 12:24pm
After glorified chai dhabbas, paan places will lure you to pay oodles for a 'branded' paan.

A satirical take on how chai dhabbas are glorified by their location, branding and prices – and also how truck art and dabs of local culture are splattered around in an attempt to add authenticity.

Have you ever tried paans? I did recently and boy was I missing out! Here I recount my experience of visiting the hottest paan joint in town. Spoiler alert: paan-tastic!

Karachi’s foodies are spoilt for choice, which begs the question of what is the recipe for standing out? What is the special sauce of success? Peter Paan offers something very different; it concerns itself with paans, gutka, cigarettes, cigars, khopra and a whole lot of candies. In all my years of searching for culinary delights in the few civilised areas of Karachi, I haven’t encountered any outlet with such a compelling USP.

I made it to the place with a couple of eager friends one uncharacteristically balmy March evening. Peter’s stands in the middle of a parking lot, which is just as well as it was literally crawling with cars. Most of them, however, were premium German metal so I didn’t feel insecure.

The outlet itself is a large wooden kiosk adorned with truck art. There was only one serving counter, which had a 50-strong queue. The kiosk has fluorescent shades and profiles of Meera, Katherine Hepburn, Katrina Kaif, Angelina Jolie, Imran Khan and Maulana Fazlur Rehman on its various facets. Right off the bat the eclectic taste of the owners is apparent. The grounds around the kiosk are decorated in Spanish gravel in shades of red and brown. I was told by Malik Charsi, the owner, that the gravel was imported from Spain, after which a mixture of discarded betel nuts and peeks (the liquid created by artfully combining gutka, saliva and cancerous cells) was applied to create this fantastic tapestry.

Want to infuse culture in a restaurant, outlet or apparel? Throw in some truck art!
Want to infuse culture in a restaurant, outlet or apparel? Throw in some truck art!

There is no seating, although exotic art deco spittoons (ugal daans) are scattered about. The place is lit by natural lighting from the sun in the day and by the combined headlights of BMWs, Mercs and Audis at night. The ventilation is excellent and the surrounding views of the roadside, shops and a gutter place you right in the midst of a romantic Paris evening.

Starters include cigarettes, beeris and cubes of crushed coconut. The cigarettes, held out deftly by waiters to your waiting lips, are lit with a flourish, adding authenticity and drama. Thereafter ash trays are proffered made from actual pieces of truck art decoration. My Gold Leaf was soft, tender with just the right amount of tanginess. It was complemented by a pink-and-yellow crushed coconut cube, which was perfectly seasoned by the sweetness of the coconut and the hands making them. There was a choice of various confectionaries but we passed, lest the appetite for the entrees suffer.

The basic paans come in three sizes and three kinds of leaves – crisp and tangy, soft and creamy, and choona-coated. Once the size and the leaf are selected, you are presented with a whole plethora of fillings, coatings and condiments. There are three kinds of betel nuts sourced from Africa, Bangladesh and Alaska: roasted, tough, bitter and and sweetened. There is a choice of Iran-sourced cardamom, dried dates, crushed coconut, candied and plain fennel, as well as choice of Cuban and Indian tobacco. Coatings can range from katha to tangy crushed limestone (Peter Paan’s tagline, ao choona lagaoon, demonstrates his love for the condiment). Especially delightful was the fresh gulqand , prepared per order with seeping rainwater, organically sourced sugar, and authentic attar. Needless to say, the outlet runs the gamut in terms of gutka variety, freshly delivered daily.

Every pan is artfully wrapped in transparent paper and rolled in colourful glossy paper sourced from internationally reputed publications like Stardust and Cosmopolitan, cobbled together to form attractive truck art-like tapestries. The paper can then be rolled into a classy toothpick.

With such a variety of ingredients, it is easy for any dish to come across as lacking in cohesion and confusing to the taste buds. This is clearly not the case. My first paan, which I lightly seasoned with katha and a smattering of the fillings, was a revelation. Perfectly triangular, the leaf melted in my mouth, leaving the coconut and betel nut to lodge themselves between my teeth. In other words, just like a paan should be!

My second one, ordered in the large size, had a lot to live up to but I had it armed to the gills. I chose all the available coatings, a hefty amount of roasted betel nut, a mountain of candied fennel, all held together by a viscous mixture of gutka and gulqand, and topped with katha. The paan was having a hard time keeping itself together once I removed it from the wrapping. This second paan was an explosion of flavours in my mouth and of colours before my eyes. The floating sensation that accompanies these flavours was present and correct. The gutka was juicy, the betel nut was crisp, the gulgand was sticky, the katha and choona were fiery, resulting in a lovely cut on my tongue and adding my own blood to the heavenly mix (I suspect this is by design). For the first few seconds I had trouble breathing as my mouth was full and my nose was blocked, yet that partial asphyxiation only added to the delight. In the end I did not want to let go of the accumulating peek in my mouth, for fear of losing the flavour and tarnishing the gleaming spittoon. Most clients prefer to forego the spittoons and contribute to the gravel tapestry, and as a result it is ever more colourful and fragrant.

Peter Paan serves a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, aged for four days in customised plastic coolers and infused with specks of chewed betel nut and locally sourced beeri-butts. Despite our best efforts, Malik refused to divulge any details about its preparation.

Peter Paan is a phenomenon for good reason. With a three-course meal ranging from Rs2,000 upwards, the prices are completely justified by the sheer quality of the ingredients and the artistry and passion displayed in the preparation. We are also excited to report that Malik Charsi has started with his gastronomic conquests. His upcoming venture is Snap Chaat, a place offering spicy and delicate Far Eastern cuisine such as chana chaat and gol gappay.

Bring it on, Charsi!