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SCENE : Sandalwood Nothings

August 31, 1995|CHARLES PERRY

"Do you feel like a millionaire?" asked a chuckling young woman in black harem pants. This was a sweet nothing ("Come and enjoy exciting Paan Liqueur drink creations," the invitation had read, "while beautiful Paan girls whisper sweet nothings in your ears"). The "millionaire" in this case was the name of a cocktail.

There was plenty going besides sweet nothings at this party, held on the Queen Mary Saturday night. A juggler and a guy who made animal figures out of balloons were wandering around the high-ceilinged Grand Ballroom, along with a Jane Seymour look-alike in a sari who gamely did East Indian-looking dances to the music of a very loud West Indian guitar and steel drum band.

The purpose, of course, was to launch this liqueur in America. Paan comes from Sikkim, a tiny, mountainous part of India between Tibet and Bengal that you don't hear much about, though it is one of the world's largest exporters of the world's second most expensive spice, cardamom. The liqueur is named for the famous Indian digestive paan (betel nuts wrapped up in betel leaves with spices), but it doesn't contain betel. The flavorings are mostly cardamom, saffron and, above all, sandalwood. Think of a wildly exotic Drambuie that smells like an Indian spice and import shop.

To this end, there were tables of Indian, Chinese, Mexican and Italian food, because Indian Distillers is pushing Paan partly as a palate cleanser after spicy foods. But they say it's also a cooking ingredient--there was some in nearly all the food, but not enough that you'd say, "Hey, there's sandalwood in these fajitas!"--not to mention a base for cocktails and shooters.

Above all there were the half-dozen "Paan girls" (a search is under way for "Paan boys" as well), who seemed to be having great fun running around in harem pants slit high up the leg and handing out Paan cocktails and later in the evening performing what looked like a temple dance worshiping a giant Paan bottle. They might have been whispering sweet nothings to it, in fact.

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