Melodic Indian music played in the room near us as fireworks ignited the New Delhi skyline just outside the window. It was Independence Day, and I was the guest of an Indian businessman. We had just finished a leisurely meal of foods so flavorful and unfamiliar that I thought nothing could surpass the experience — until the fireworks and music began. As we sat, contemplating India’s changes, I was offered a pinch of meethi-saunf, the traditional equivalent of our after-dinner mint. I took a pinch and placed a few grains into my mouth.
Meethi-saunsf, sometimes called mukhwas, is a surprising breath freshener, not minty as I’d expected. Made of fennel seed, it was dyed bright colors and mixed with sugar crystals, betel nut for flavor and dried seeds of melon, cucumber and pumpkin, all in bright colors. I’d seen these in jars in the markets but didn’t realize what they were for.
An excellent aid for digestion, fennel seed is offered at the end of meals in restaurants and is a staple of any dinner party in India. The combination of the rock sugar crystals and fennel works as a tooth polish, and is a delightful way to finish off a meal.
The sweet taste of fennel transported me back to my own garden and to a time when a well-meaning garden helper dug up and threw away my fennel bed.
I’ve cultivated bronze and sweet fennel for years as a backdrop to other herbs. It’s a great attractant for the black swallowtail butterfly, whose eggs turn into little black, yellow and white striped caterpillars. They eat a leaf, go into their pupa stage, then — in their magical way — turn into one of the most beautiful of butterflies. Swallowtails enjoy parsley and dill, but they’ll turn their proboscis down at both if they can find a bed of fennel. The caterpillars harm nothing else, so I encourage them because I like the butterflies.
I was going to be away on business in late summer and asked my garden helper, Judy, to help in the garden while I was away.
I pointed out that the fennel bed with several spindly plants of bulbing fennel had gone to seed and needed to be removed. Growing beside those were my head-high bronze fennels, the ones for the butterflies (and for stuffing the leaves into trout before broiling). Those, I explained, were prize plants and she shouldn’t do anything to those. “But the little plants with bulbs,” I said, “you can dig out and throw to the goats.”
She nodded studiously, and off I went, secure in the knowledge that I carefully had transmitted my directions. I returned after several days and discovered the little rows of overgrown fennel bulbs, as happy survivors, but spindly and useless as ever. Nowhere in sight were my robust, prized bronze fennels.
When Judy came to work the next morning, I asked her why she’d uprooted the prized bronzes.
Looking completely aghast, she dug out her note and immediately went pale. She apologized profusely for the mistake, and I retrieved what was left of the goat-munched plants after a week in the late summer sun, and replanted the shriveled roots.
They grew and are the plants I still have, a dozen years later. When we see each other, Judy reminds me of the fennel, and I remind her how tenacious the plant is and how we all learn about gardening from the mistakes we make.
Coming back to the present as the New Delhi skyline exploded again and again with fireworks, I took another pinch of the fennel mix, enjoying the sweetness and the digestion-enhancing qualities of this remarkable ancient plant. Durable and tenacious as the New Delhi skyline, fennel’s roots are firmly planted in antiquity and its sweet bounty continues today.
Jim Long, contributing editor to The Herb Companion, writes and gardens in the Ozarks Mountains. Questions and comments are welcome via his website: www.Longcreekherbs.com.