“Have you ever tried sweet paan?”
My tour guide asked me this question as we walked along one of many busy Johannesburg streets, in search of local treats.
We had parked in Fordsburg, the Indian quarter of Johannesburg, South Africa. Fordsburg is a neighborhood with a multicultural past, but today, it houses primarily Indian-owned shops and restaurants. My taste buds knew they’d be in for a treat.
After a morning of seeing cultural sights throughout other parts of the city, it was time for some food. Just making our way along the streets and alleyways was a playground for the senses: brightly-colored storefronts, the savory smells of local street food, tables of vibrant clothes and other wares for sale.
I told our guide that no, neither my husband nor I had ever tried sweet paan, but I had a feeling that the guide would make that our next stop. And, as adventurous eaters, we were up for trying it! Indeed, our tour guide led us up to a small open window, tucked among the other exotic stores. There was a counter behind the window, bearing small containers with what I assumed was all of the makings of sweet paan.
As a gentleman stepped behind that counter to help us, our tour guide ordered “three sweet paan” so that we could each sample one. The way that our tour guide had described this local treat, I wasn’t sure that I’d like it; it was a betel leaf filled with candy and candied fruits. I had no idea what a betel leaf would taste like, and I feared that the filling would be too sugary for me. But traveling provides us with a wonderful opportunity to learn about other cultures, partially through food. I rarely turn down a local specialty when it’s offered to me.
The sweet paan was made right in front of us, in a matter of minutes. The vendor picked up a bright green betel leaf in his palm, and he quickly filled it with ingredients such as coconut and colorful chopped fruits and candies. Then, he expertly folded each of the three leaves and handed them over to us. As I expected, sweet paan really wasn’t my thing. But now, if someone ever asks me if I’ve tried sweet paan, I can most definitively say yes.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent trying other delights in Johannesburg’s Indian quarter. As someone originally from Silicon Valley, I’d thought I’d tried a fair variety of Indian foods, my previous samplings having ranged from northern curries to southern dosas. As I learned on this trip, the restaurants from my home had barely given me a taste of the Indian street food options that were available.
Fordsburg Market, Johannesburg
We stepped into a market just off of the main street, buzzing with the energy of locals shopping not only for food, but also for clothes and housewares. The market’s paths and alleyways were utilitarian but functional, simply lined with items on hangers.
And then, we reached the room that dreams were made of. At the end of the block of sundry shops, the path opened up into an area that smelled delightful, a mixture of onion, garlic, and curry. Vendors stood behind several long tables freshly preparing familiar dosas and samosas, but also, many other foods that I had never seen before. One that particularly intrigued me was pani puri, which consisted of a thin, crispy round shell, stuffed with a potato-like filling, topped with a tart tamarind sauce. Again, this was something that I had neither eaten nor seen before, but I had to try it. And unlike the sweet paan, I really liked this one! In fact, I wished I could have had more, but I was wisely leaving room in my stomach.
Lastly, our tour guide took us around the corner for a treat. We stopped in a store that specialized in kulfi, a creamy frozen treat made of sweet milk, flavored with cardamom and pistachios. While this is something that I was already familiar with, I knew that I would very much enjoy it. It was a great end to a tasty, and culturally enriching, day!
Whenever I travel, especially to somewhere that I would consider exotic or different, I am always willing to try what the locals are having. I recommend that you do the same! Even if you don’t find your new favorite food, you will certainly gain some new insight into how the locals live.
When You Go:
Ilan Ossendryver is a photojournalist living in Johannesburg who provides personalized tours of Soweto and other townships. He is heavily involved with local communities, and I ensure that a tour with him will inspire you and be worth your while –
Written by: Brooke Yool
Brooke is a Seattle-based college instructor and auto repair shop owner. She is obsessed with any opportunity to interact with locals while traveling, since that’s where the magic happens. Her journeys often take her to Eastern Europe or the Middle East.