After-dinner Fennel

| October/November 2004

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.

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