Why People Eat Paan and Its Different Uses

Paintings made from paan are ubiquitous in India! This is seen on public transport such as trains, buses, bridges, walls on the streets, buildings, pavements, electric poles, and virtually everywhere.

Paan has been and is an important part of Indian culture. The kiosks or small paan shops are modern-day coffee shops wherein people gather and discuss daily happenings, economics, politics, and even gossip over paan. It is often eaten after meals in most Indian households and also serves as a mouth freshener.

Preparation of Paan

As soon as a paanwaala (seller of paan) is asked to prepare paan for a customer, the paanwaala’s hand starts flying in different directions in the colorful shop wherein a large number of different sachets are hung to get the variety of ingredients that go into the betel leaf.

The heart-shaped betel leaf is coated with slaked lime and the astringent, chocolate-brown herb kattha. Following this the fragrant flavors – cardamom, clove, mace, nutmeg, camphor, areca nut, fennel seeds, dried fruits, coconut powder, and gulkand (dried rose petals dipped in sugar syrup) are added to it. And finally, the paan (betel leaf) is then folded into a neat triangle, fastened or fixed with clove, and its ready to be delivered into the hands of the customer.

Its Different Names

This treat is known by different names in the country and millions of Indians chew it every day. Why do people enjoy eating it? It has a sharp taste and an appetizing flavor. Furthermore, it also serves as an excellent mouth freshener or post-meal treat which is why it is commonly found in Indian households.

The betel leaf is known by many Indian names like tambul, tamalapaku, nagavalli, nagarbel and the Portuguese named it ‘betel’ (which is derived from the Malayalam and Tamil word ‘vettile’).

Image via India.com

What Do Ancient Texts Say About Paan?

According to the South China Morning Post’s article “Ancient texts mention how the betel leaf’s different parts represent different Hindu deities: Lakshmi in front, Shiva around the edges, and Yama – the Lord of Death – residing in the stalk, the unfavorable part, to be shunned.”

Skanda Purana is the ancient Hindu compendium of religious texts. It dates back to the sixth century and has references to paan.

“In the story of Samudra Manthan, the churning of the ocean by Gods and Demons in search of Amrit, the nectar of immortality, the betel leaf was one of the many celestial objects that were discovered,” said scholar and priest Ram Keshav. “The holy leaf also finds mentions in epics like Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Vishnu Purana, which is how it acquired primacy in religious ceremonies,” explains the priest.

Keshav says, according to Hindu mythology, a betel leaf garland was offered to Hanuman, a monkey god, by a Goddess when he conveyed to her that all was well with her husband. She was so overwhelmed that, to thank Hanuman, she strung paan leaves together to garland him. That started the tradition of Hanuman devotees offering paan to him.

The Origins of Betel

Piper betel is a vine of Southeast Asian origin that bears neither flowers nor fruit. Today, it is found in markets across Asia as well as Africa. India grows nearly forty varieties out of the nearly hundred cultivated worldwide as chewing paan is not only popular in India but also across Southeast Asia.

It is used from Thailand to the Philippines to Vietnam. Skulls dating back to 3000 BC in the Philippines show betel-stained red teeth. This proves that paan chewing was common across the archipelago as the red color (on the stained teeth) comes from the slaked lime. It reacts with saliva, releasing an alkaloid – a chemical compound.

Image via Karnataka.com | Paan Seller. Image courtesy Subhadip Mukherjee

The Different Uses of Paan

Not only are the spat out “paintings” of paan ubiquitous but also the leaf is highly important to the country from its mention in pop culture. It is also given to teachers to seek blessings and is used prolifically in traditional medicine such as Ayurveda.

In India’s northeastern state – Assam, paan and betel nuts are offered to guests with invitation cards for marriage, while priests are given a betel nut along with a coin placed on the leaf as a mark of respect. Paan, which is also known as green gold, comes from the Piper betel, and brides in West Bengal, India, enter the marriage venue covering their faces with betel leaves.

From royals to commoners, many are obsessed with it, its pleasure, and the health benefits it offers. The making of paan or beeda is considered an art (hence the idiom “beeda uthana” which means taking the lead or responsibility for a task/challenge). The preparation includes trimming the leaf, smearing it with earthy slaked lime as well as herbs, and topping it with colorful ingredients then skillfully folding it.

Due to the variety of ingredients included in the quid, it could be called a representation of the culinary map of India as it has the best saffron of Kashmir, betel nut from the eastern state of Bengal. It includes Kerala’s clove and cardamom, Ajmer’s gulkand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar’s catechu make up the juicy paan. All these flavors give paan its perfect balance of taste. Paan is hot and astringent yet sweet as it contains the aforementioned (and more!) multitude fillings. It leaves a fresh and cooling effect when relished.

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Paan is not only sold at the small stores but sada paan (plain paan) and meetha paan [sweet paan with gulkand]are also offered at restaurants post-meals. Moreover, paan shots are being served at a bar in the Radisson Hotel in Noida in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Over the years, paan has gone from being a stand-alone offering to being an ingredient that is included in a variety of food (chaat) to desserts such as kulfis, ice creams, and beverages like cocktails, mocktails, lattes, chai, margaritas, and more! Today there are different flavors of paan, for example – ‘Dry Fruit Meetha Paan’, ‘Milk/ Dark Chocolate Coated Paan’, ‘Blueberry Meetha Paan’, and more!

Some communities in South India’s Tamil Nadu state are known to cook rice with garlic and betel leaves. In addition to this, soup infused with ghee and chopped betel leaves is considered a delicacy. In Vietnam, betel leaves are used to wrap spicy meat morsels, as per South China Morning Post.

According to Whetstone Magazine, “the delicate Maghai leaves cultivated in Bihar, Jagannathi from Orissa or the desi grown in Jaunpur go into making the Benarasi paan” about which references are made even in Bollywood songs. For example, when Amitabh Bachchan sang about benarasi paan in his 1978 blockbuster hit Don and King Khan – SRK in the 2006 film Don!

They are grown by taking a lot of care as they are “stored in bamboo baskets, kept in the dark and treated with smoke for three days, the cured leaves lend a melt-in-the-mouth quality” and “they last three to five days in summer and about seven days in winter”. “Too much water spoils it and too little dries it”.

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According to food historian and author Dr. Pushpesh Pant, “the maghai paan is considered exclusive because its delicate leaves grow only during four months in a year and are cultivated selectively only in Bihar (a state in eastern India), as opposed to desi patta which grows more abundantly.”

Each family has its own recipe for preparing paan and they add their own spin or a unique touch to it whether it has to do with its ingredients/contents or its presentation/folding of the betel leaf.

Image via Zomato | The Betel Leaf Co.

The prepared paan was placed in a special covered dish called the khaas daan and Paan containers. Spittoons – for saliva generated because of the chewing – were often works of art crafted from silver and embellished with intricate designs, Pant says.

The betel leaf has also received some stardom as in central Delhi, Pandey’s Paan Shop holds the unique distinction of treating former Indian presidents, prime ministers, and state guests with his paan which includes three US presidents, including Barack Obama.

Pandey says he offers fifty types of paan – from the plain to giant baroque confections brimming with more than thirty ingredients. “Flavours range from butterscotch to kiwi, piña colada, blackberry, raspberry, walnut, hazelnut, and chocolate. In a nod to diabetics, there’s diet paan as well, where sugary gulkand is replaced by sucrose – a sugar found in plants.”

According to South China Morning Post, Paan is also endorsed by Ayurveda, A 5,000-year-old traditional Indian health science that mentions it to be rich in carotenes, calcium, and vitamins such as B3, B2, B1, and C.

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“The betel leaf is a trove of health benefits. It contains micronutrients such as thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and carotene, and is also a great source of calcium which is why we recommend it for lactating mothers. Eating betel leaf regularly helps in balancing vata and kapha doshas [regulating forces of nature]of the human body,” says Ved Shastri, an Ayurvedic doctor from Delhi.

Consuming one betel leaf a day also flushes out toxins from the system while producing the optimum balance of pH levels in the stomach. Paan is also an appetite enhancer, and betel leaf oil helps prevent tooth decay while strengthening gums and teeth, Shastri says, as per the South China Morning Post.

Despite its popularity and glorious legacy, a surge in the cost of labor in betel leaf cultivation and the charges for water (paan, like rice, requires a lot of water to grow) is eroding profits, farmers say.

“Earlier, water was not a problem but now, with plummeting water tables, water is not available year-round and has become very expensive,” says the third-generation paan farmer – Prakash Chaurasia. Chaurasia is a smallholder farmer from the Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh, a paan growing belt, who added: “I’m not sure how long I can continue with my family profession. I’m planning to diversify into growing vegetables and herbs as well to earn better profits.”


Featured image adapted from Parenting First Cry.

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