How Saunf (or Mukhwas, or Fennel Candy) Built Me a Home
To these writers, saunf occurred in the world as a curiosity, but not as an inevitability.
But what is that? Just saunf. Go on, get some. Try it.
As my partner and I grew more familiar with our neighborhood, I grew happily suspicious that one of the other residents might be Indian. At a Christmas block party, he said his name was Neal, which, strangely, confirmed my suspicions. Are you Indian, too? I asked, and for an evening he drunkenly bonded with me. He said that he, too, was dating a white person and learning to navigate the tricky family dynamics. He asked questions: So, what do your parents think about your dating a white person? What do his parents think about you being brown? Are they mad you aren’t Christian?
But we never exchanged phone numbers and never did more than wave after. Without the alcohol, Neal didn’t seem willing to broach any topics with me, and I wondered if he was embarrassed of what he’d confronted in himself and then shared with me. But ultimately, for me, it was one more dead-end. So, I tried a new tactic. Instead of obstinately seeking out others to ground me, I gravitated towards more firmly feeling rooted in myself.
But I was unsure how to do that, so I followed the anthropological handbook of absorbing culture that I’d learned in college. I thought I ought to dissect the context around every bit of my Indianness, including saunf. I set out to read history and facts and maybe some connection to philosophy or traditional medicine. I located the Wikipedia page—but it was short and sober. When I searched in academic journals, I mostly received accounts of fennel’s health properties, which focused directly on the plant but not much more. Through Kevin Warwick’s article in The Takeout, I found a few sources. In The Penguin Food Guide to India, Charmaine O’Brien discusses fennel candy’s ubiquity in India and how it might be considered similar to the European concept of a comfit. She, like Colleen Taylor Sen in Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, mentions mukhwas as a digestive aid. Sen also talks about mukhwas as a breath freshener, which might have been born from the use of betel nuts in Islamic courts in Delhi in the 13th and 14th centuries. That piqued my interest as an entry into a narrative I could unfold. But as I researched, I recognized that most depictions of saunf read dryly to me. To these writers, saunf occurred in the world as a curiosity, but not as an inevitability.
I was convinced there was some generational knowledge about the saunf’s origins or its significance to subcontinent’s broader culture that I couldn’t unearth. Turning to a source I trusted, I called my mother. She described its characteristics, the tastes and smells and textures I already knew. But what did people say to you about it when you were growing up? I said.She stopped to consider. We never really talked about it. It was just there. I paused, surprised that she and I had actually experienced saunf in the same way.
Though I knew about traumas and hardships from the homeland, I always imagined her life differently back in those red-hot leather pants New Delhi days. She had been a student of Hindi literature and a star dancer, too, so I imagined her Indianness with dust and smoke and Bollywood splendor. I imagined her culture shone through every nook and cranny, a polished gem that had been carefully cut by generations that understood and revered their culture. Mine felt more buried, a gleam inside a rock of ignorance. And yet, my mother collapsed that dichotomy in one comment.
Remember the canister? In Maiya’s house? I said.
My grandparents had housed that canister in their pantry. It came with three varieties of saunf: one green, one red, and one whose color I can’t remember but whose taste was too bitter for me. When I first ate it, I spat it out into the sink, with my face very close to the drain. Maiya told me it had paan, or betel leaf, in it. At the time, Maiya and my mother laughed.
Poor girl, it’s too strong for her, Maiya said, even though she could take in a big handful without any semblance of gagging. How can a little girl born in America of all places like paan? my mother said back. My grandmother covered her mouth as she snorted and my mother tweaked my nose.
I didn’t mind my Americanness, though. I took the jokes well, because my family was right. I didn’t know all the flavors of saunf the way they did, but I was learning them in my own time.
I was learning them in my own time.
Every time we went over to my grandparents’ house, I waited for Maiya to simmer her onions and cut her okra and tomatoes in that diligent way. Then I slid over the black and white diamond tiles, teetering in my socks, and crash-landed against the pantry doors. I pulled them back and found the canister, the fennel seeds appearing like tiny shards of emeralds and rubies and even silver. I tipped my head back and poured over-large handfuls into my mouth, reveling in the intoxicatingly spicy bursts of flavor that created light, despite the shadows of the hallway I hid in.
After a few trips, Maiya always caught me and put the canister further back in the pantry. Oh, no, no, she said. Beta, your stomach will go sour if you eat that much before dinner. But despite Maiya’s teasing, the canister was almost always full whenever I came by. And as time passed, I ate every flavor, regardless of the paan.
As my mother and I traded memories of that time, I didn’t need to know about anyone else’s version of saunf. Not a white version, primed for food shows. Not even my mother’s Indian-from-India version, being sold in markets that she walked through in her salwar khameez. For me, saunf was how I strove to find my brownness and how I reconciled my Americanness in a primarily immigrant family. How I rebelled against my Maiya’s belief that I would never be brown enough to crave a betel leaf. How I found joy in flavor. We are our experiences distilled into a body. Saunf built parts of me nothing else did.
I think only of how, in the end, saunf is quiet. It is only brought out after the meal. It is only eaten on the way out from the restaurant and into the car. And because of that quietness, it can be easy for it to lose respect. All through my childhood, I forgot to notice how it helped me become the Indian I am. But it was never the food I used to entice white friends, not like butter chicken or samosas, nor did I need it to prove my flavor literacy to my family. Saunf, in the background, like my own identity, lingers, a steadfast verisimilitude that brings me home.
Last year, my partner and I passed by a bowl of saunf while eating out at an Indian restaurant. I stopped and admired the delicate silver spoon. The pink, yellow, and white ovals piled together alluringly. My partner, being white, asked what the tiny candies were. I asked him to hold out his hand and said: Just saunf. Go on, try it. As we walked back to the car, the night air brisk, the stars peeping through clouds, he tried to describe the flavors that he tasted and I nodded. Something spicy, but also not? And kind of sweet? After, I told him my stories, and he thanked me for gifting him that little view inside. I didn’t say much after that. I think because nothing needed to be loud, it just needed to be true.
Originally from Connecticut, Eshani Surya is recent graduate of the University of Arizona MFA program in fiction, where she also taught undergraduates. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Joyland, Paper Darts, and New Delta Review, among others. She also serves as a Flash Fiction Reader at Split Lip Magazine, and works in video game content creation. Find her online @__eshani.