If you are the adventurous type and love trying things to eat then I highly recommend trying chewing the “paan” in India especially if you consume tobacco. Some people would laugh at the sight of a westerner chewing the paan but it is something that you must experience. You find little stalls on the roadside everywhere so you can’t escape it. There are different types of paan in India so I will go through what exactly paan is and which ones you should try?
Once considered symbol of Indian royalty, chewing paan has now been popularized a great deal by Bollywood. Paan is now chewed by people from every class in India. From the laborers working under the burning sun to the people traveling in the air conditioned cars, paan lovers can be found everywhere. Paan has been mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures like Charaka Samhita, Ayurvedic books, Shrushruta and many more. If was also recorded travelers like Marco Polo.
The practice of chewing betel leaves, areca nut mixed with tobacco, lime, sweetened coconut, spices, mint and other pan ingredients (called paan masala) existed in ancient India which dates back to nearly 2500 years ago. All the preferred ingredients are neatly packed in a leaf and served at weddings, Paan stalls, homes and festivals in many South Asian countries including India. There is a special technique used to folding the Paan and holding the ingredients in its bosom. The most popular art of Paan folding is known as “Gilouri” where the fillings are held by a clove which is pinned to a triangle shaped folding of betel leave. Offering Paan to guests is a symbol of hospitality in many Indian homes.
The different types of paan popular across India are:
- Maghai Paan
- Saada Paan
- Meetha Paan
- Banarasi Paan
- Silver Paan
- Gold Paan
- Rasamalai Paan
- Chocolate Paan
- Bangla Paan
- Tambaku Paan
- Misti Paan
- Jagannath Paan
- Kalkatti Paan
Unlike just any other food, paan has a special place in religious ceremonies and weddings. There have been many songs sung, stories written and scenes shot giving importance to paan. There are various myths and beliefs attached to eating paan. It was considered to be a great aphrodisiac, one of the reasons why it became associated with love and sexuality. Some people believe that eating dried betel leaves will bring misfortune and decreases life span. Some people never eat the stalk of the betel leaf because it is again known to bring in grief into the lives of the person. The Hindu God is worshipped with exactly 32 fresh leaves of betel. In West Bengal, paan is an important part of the wedding ceremony. Banaras has its own tradition of paan chewing which is famous throughout India.
Most people use it as a mouth fresher and digestive aid, especially after a spicy, hot and heavy dinner. paan was known to increase libido, aid in digestion and work as a mouth fresher for the lovers of paan. In absence of lipstick, the chewing of paan served the purpose of reddening the lips, lending it a cosmetic purpose. Buddhist loved chewing Paan and carried it to other parts of Asia along with them. That is how paan chewing became popular in South Asia, East Asia, South East Asia and other parts of world. The obsession with paan chewing has made it a thriving business industry in India. Nearly 40 varieties of betel leaves are grown in farms to meet the growing demands.
Watch Meetha Paan being made
Betel leaf has various health benefits but only when it is chewed without the harmful ingredients that goes into making it a sought after delicacy. It is used in treating various illnesses in Ayurvedic medicine. Scientific research has found that betel has hydroxychavicol, an allylbenzene essential oil which stimulant effects. This has anti-platelet and anti-inflammatory properties. Hyperactivity of platelet is known to cause pathogenesis of cardiovascular diseases, thus betel leaf can help in preventing heart diseases. In addition betel leaf is known to prevent intestinal parasites, prevent cellular degeneration, and supplement calcium, vitamin C and other nutrients. It was used to cover wounds and other infections due to its anti-septic property. Apart from all the benefits, chewing paan is known to be good relaxant, relieving stress and keeping depression at bay.
If you come across red stains on streets or walls anywhere in the world, then you can assume that there is a Paan loving Indian somewhere nearby. The lovers of paan often love to show their art by throwing spittle wherever they find convenient. In India the paan stains have become a symbol of public menace and shame. The unhygienic method is known to spread disease like tuberculosis, but that has never stopped the paan chewing Indians from contaminating public places. Government has to spend a huge budget to rid of the paan stains, which are not easily removable. Apart from the stains, chewing paan, especially filled with tobacco is known to cause leukoplakia which are harmful lesions inside the mouth which can later lead to oral and esophagus cancer. Though the betel leaf itself is not harmful, the highly narcotic substances included in paan can cause it to be addictive which forces people to chew it all day through.
Here’s an excellent video of paan being prepared in a paan shop. Scott an American explains what paan is and actually trying it.
There are some issues with chewing paan as mentioned above but then if it’s taken occasionally then there is little no harm what so ever. Paan shops are found on every street in India. You can simply walk up the paan shop or stall and ask them if you can have one. If you don’t like tobacco then ask for a “meetha paan” or the “saada paan”. If you are uncomfortable at the stalls then you can ask for paan at the restaurants as well. Perhaps the restaurants make their own paan or they can always get you one from the nearby paan shop.
Remember paan is not for everyone and most western palates will reject it but the Indian experience will not be complete without chewing the paan.