INDIA: Paan is a simple Indian treat, and is favourite not only across India but also in parts of Southeast Asia. Consumed as a grand finish to a sumptuous meal, it is a breath freshener, palate cleanser, great for digestion, and has psychoactive effects.
It is much more than a snack and is made with a heart-shaped, emerald-hued betel leaf with different kinds of areca nut and berries, spices, and fragrant flavours like cardamom, clove, mace, nutmeg, camphor, fennel seeds, dried fruits, coconut powder and gulkand (dried rose petals dipped in sugar syrup) and application of slaked lime and the astringent, chocolate-brown herb kattha on it.
You can find kiosks manned by paanwallahs (seller of paan) at almost every street corner. These kiosks act as meeting points where people gather to gossip while chewing the gilauri (prepared paan triangles). The kiosk normally is a make-shift settlement and is a insubstantial structure where the paanwallah sits on a wooden stool and has steel containers filled with paan condiments.
A local paanwallah knows his customer’s likings and starts preparing a paan as soon as he sees him approaching. The betel leaf kept covered in a wet muslin cloth is taken out and a layer of slaked lime is applied followed by a layer of kattha. And then supari (beetle nut) and other ingredients depending on what the customer likes are added. The leaf is then folded into a neat triangle and served to the customer to relish.
Paan is known by different names in different parts of India depending on the location. Tambul, nagarbel, tamalapaku, vettile, nagavalli, etc… are a few names, but is the name important? No, the taste and the pleasure is important for people of all ages from kids to senior citizens.
Paandaans and spittoon
In India, the older generation in northeastern India keeps a paandaan (container for storing leaves and condiments) and a spittoon (for the saliva generated because of the chewing) crafted from silver with intricate designs with them at homes. Guests are customarily offered paan as a post-dinner treat or at the time of their arrival.
At places, paan is gifted to teachers to seek blessings and also offered in temples to priests. Almost all over India, giving a betel nut and a coin placed on the leaf to a priest is considered a mark of respect.
In Assam, paan and betel nuts are offered to guests with invitation cards for marriage. In West Bengal, it is used to cover the bride’s face when they come to the marriage venue. In Tamil Nadu, people cook rice with garlic and betel leaves. Soup infused with ghee and chopped betel leaves is considered a delicacy.
Not only Indians, but people in other Southeast Asian countries also are known to like and chew paan on a daily basis. In Vietnam, betel leaves are used to wrap spicy meat morsels.
Paan finds prolific usage in traditional medicine and is recommended and praised by Ayurveda practitioners for its health-giving properties. Paan is considered to be a trove of health benefits as it is rich in carotenes, calcium, and vitamins such as B3, B2, B1, and C. It contains micronutrients such as thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and carotene, and is a great source of calcium. A paan a day helps in flushing out toxins from the system. Paan is also a great appetite enhancer, and though it de-colours teeth, its oil is used to prevent tooth decay, and strengthen gums and teeth.
Paan is also assumed to be a good aphrodisiac, a substance that increases sexual desire, sexual pleasure, or sexual behaviour, and is supposedly recommended in Kama Sutra, a Sanskrit literature.
Varieties of paan
More than 50 types of varieties of paan are available with paanwallahs and modern establishments today. It is used to flavour kulfis, ice-creams, chaats, cocktails, mocktails, lattes, chai and margaritas. Paan shots at bars are also in vogue. Various flavoured paan available today are butterscotch, kiwi, piña colada, blackberry, raspberry, walnut, hazelnut, and chocolate.
In Delhi, recently there was a big buzz about fire paan and the youth of the city went crazy. A combination of spices, dried fruits, and dry cloves is set aflame and thrust into the customer’s mouth by the paanwallah. The paan catches fire because of the presence of Peppermint in the paan. Ice paan, filled with crushed ice for a cool aftertaste, diet paan for people with diabetics are also popular.
Cultivation of paan
Paans have been known since 3000BC. Leaves are collected from Piper betle, a vine of Southeast Asian origin that bears no flowers or fruit. India grows nearly 40 varieties out of the nearly 100 cultivated worldwide. The most common variety is the desi patta which grows all year-round. More exclusive varieties, like banarasi and maghai paan have delicate leaves and grows only for four months a year in parts of Bihar.
Known as green gold, paan has a glorious legacy, but betel leaf cultivation is facing problems in India because of high labour cost. Paan requires a lot of water to grow and high charges for water are also a concern for farmers.