Mukhwas is to South Asian restaurants as starlite mints are to all-American, all-you-can-eat buffets. Dispensed from bowls conveniently placed near the register, these sweet little breath-fresheners also have digestive properties that can take the edge off a heavy meal.
In India and Pakistan, there are about a thousand different mukhwas recipes, most based on fennel or anise seeds. Mukwas can be sweet or savory and often includes aromatic oils such as peppermint or cinnamon. Some mixes look deceptively like confetti; others, like potpourri.
Although I've eaten plenty of mukhwas since starting this blog, it had never occurred to me to write about it until today, and I'm motivated mostly by the need to work through a weird experience I had on a day trip to Bremerton, WA. At a deserted downtown restaurant, I had some of the most delicious Indian food I've ever eaten, paired with what might be the most contemptuous service I've ever experienced. Our chana masala, palak paneer, and garlic naan were superlative--perfectly spiced and full of small but recognizable chunks of fresh and flavorful ingredients. Our server, on the other hand, was consistently hostile and brusque--but earned style points by having mastered the art of refilling water glasses without taking her eyes off the blaring TV on the far side of the room.
By the time we had finished and paid I wanted nothing more than to run for the door, but I made myself take a quick detour past the bowl of mukwas. Then I enjoyed my handful in the more welcoming atmosphere of the street outside. The toasted fennel seeds were so heavily candy-coated that they looked like reject TicTacs, but they were an effective antidote to the bitter taste in my mouth.
In the days since I've thought a lot about this experience and my reaction to it, and I've realized how much of my interest in food stems from its being a fundamentally social product. I work in retail food service, and I acknowledge that it's a challenging field and that everyone (especially me!) has their bad days, but I'm thinking more and more about whether anything can taste equally delicious whether served with a smile or with a snarl.
Although I usually include supplier contact information in my blog posts, I'm going to leave off the name and address of this restaurant. If you find yourself in downtown Bremerton with both a strong psyche and a strong appetite, I'm sure you'll be able to find it.