blogitto ergo sum

June 13, 2011

#187 – the fun of paan

Filed under: Eat, Drink, Enjoy,on the road,see, absorb, enjoy — yael [ya-el] wagner @ 01:06
Tags: , , , ,

i could have enjoyed India without ever hearing of paan.  many visitors do.  luckily, friends who support and encourage experiencing [mine, not theirs, obviously], introduced me to this very diverse snack/digestive.

Bukhara, New Delhi

i had my first taste of paan in Bukhara, a fancy New Delhi Muslim restaurant located within the ITC Maurya hotel.  Bukhara is known for its grilled meats [all shahda halal].

dining @ Bukhara with two vegetarians meant no extra carnivorous  to share more of its flag dishes with.  at the end of our meal, when asked if i wanted to try something different, very local, of course i said “yes.”  and paan arrived.

an infomercial moment:  The betel leaf is popularly known as paan in India. It is a medicinal plant whose leaves are taken as a spice. Paan is an evergreen.  The leaves are glossy and heart shaped. Of the many varieties of betel leaves, the best one is called magahi and is from the region of Magadh, in Bihar, India.
The paan leaves are generally chewed either by themselves or in combination with slaked lime, betel nuts (areca variety) and other exotic stuff like aniseed and sometimes tobacco etc.

my first paan

first taste: a bit chewy, no distinctive taste…  can’t determine if i like it or not.  definitely a labor intensive jaw work.  i file it under “requires further investigation.”

Bangalore, a day or two later.  i spend the day with Narayanan, an old friend who moved from the valley back to India.  i mention the paan and am surprised to learn that there are more kinds; let’s call them the sweet and the interesting, otherwise known as zarda paan and meetha paan.

Narayanan and i tour Bangaluru and once again i’m reminded of how different a town feels when you walk it with a local friend who knows you and knows the city.

sometime between lunch and our afternoon dessert we pass by a paan man.  it’s a one man show on the back of his bicycle.


“do you want to try a different paan?”

of course I do.  a whole negotiation dialog is taking place.  while waiting for the special one paan to get prepared, i get to eat two very sweet paans. love it.  would be perfect with tea.

paanman is putting whatever he is putting together, rolling it, while I’m being “coached” for my special paan tasting.  i am to follow very strict instructions:

  • you chew it.  thoroughly and slowly
  • under no circumstances you are to swallow anything.  do you hear me?  swallow NOTHING!  you’ll get very sick if you will
  • whenever you accumulate juices you spit.  you MUST spit.

hold it right there.  i was taught NEVER to spit.  and in the street?  what would my mom say if she saw me spitting in the street?!

in return i get an extra slow explanation for dummies: “don’t swallow any of it.  you’ll get very sick.  spit it out!!!”

people gather to watch.  paan  is ready.  i get yet another warning.  “SPIT!  remember to SPIT!”

i start chewing.  almost instantly juices start to accumulate.  the website says, “In urban areas, chewing paan is generally considered a nuisance because some chewers spit the paan out in public areas. The red stain generated by the combination of ingredients when chewed are known to make a colorful stain on the ground. This is becoming an unwanted eyesore in Indian cities such as Mumbai, although many see it as an integral part of Indian culture.”

now i don’t know about you, but spitting taboo means that i never got any practice.  i have no idea how one creates the momentum to create a nice arch.  thoughts of Dune and the samota chewing and spitting run through my head.  meanwhile the saliva level in my mouth keeps rising.  I’m getting to the point of having no choice.

the fun of paan

“spit” narayanan orders, “spit!”  and i do.  it doesn’t go very far.  i dig into my pocket to get some tissues.  now try laughing, chewing, spiting.  tough.  “people are watching you”, Narayanan informs me.  it doesn’t help.  i laugh harder, which makes spitting harder.

Betle Leaf

the orange drops stain my lips, i can feel it.  and then Narayanan orders, “spit it all out.  enough.”  i obey.  “how do you feel? anything?”  nothing.  we walk another block and then i get a zarda message from my head, it’s about 0.25 meter above my neck.  two minutes later it’s over.  much a chew about nothing.  only now i get to hear Narayanan’s own paan story.  no wonder he was so protective of me.  this one is filed under nice.  happy to try again.

i asked a few Indian friends.  answers vary.  Harry M, not your typical Indian, said “i love it.  in my experience, the one with gulkhand [a sweet preserve of rose petals] is the best.”  and i think; this is the sweet paan.  makes for a great after dinner sweet.

and how come only HM told me about the paan khajur, which if made of dates and it “to die for.”  still hadn’t had a chance to taste one.

got paan?

No more paan for me

researching for this blog, i came across this byte of information, “The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regards the chewing of betel-quid and areca nut to be a known human carcinogen.  The main carcinogenic factor is believed to be areca nut. A recent study found that areca-nut paan with and without tobacco increased oral cancer risk by 9.9 and 8.4 times, respectively. [Source: International Journal of Cancer, Volume 86, Issue 1, pages 128–131, 1 April 2000]

remember that Fall Out Boy song?  “Thanks for the memories.”  paan out.


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