If you’ve ever been to the subcontinent, you will have noticed paan (or sometimes, pan) shops everywhere. People will tell you different paan stories of their own, a friend of a friend… You know the sort. Anyway, I’m told that a seasoned paan eater doesn’t actually swallow all the paan, but only the fillings, in sweet paan. The rest gets spat on the pavement, or wherever the chewers might be. At home, of course, they will have spittoons for the messy pink liquid.
Paan has been used for centuries to sweeten the breath, particularly of lovers and royalty, which is why so many illustrations of paan accessories are set in bedrooms. Paan was one of the 8 delights enjoyed by royals in ancient times. In other classes, only married couples were allowed to use it as it was believed to be an aphrodisiac.
It has had poems written about it, such as this translation of one by Murkhya Charan Bhattacharya, a poet from Bengal.
She lives indoors, but is not a woman,
Not sought by the young but adored by the old.
She is a temptress like a fire-fly
Fools will not interpret this and will remain confused.
It is given as an offering to Hindu gods, and it is believed that Vishnu is particularly pleased when given 32 betel pepper vine leaves, no more or less. There is a superstition that if you eat a dry paan leaf, your life will end rather suddenly.
Paan is a part of the culture in India, and in Bengali wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom are given traditional brass containers topped with betel leaves and condiments in the hope that their future life as a married couple will be a happy one. As their love grows, the woman will not only roll paan for her husband, but also feed him with her own hands.
Those who enjoy paan believe it is a good stimulant, and antidepressant which relieves stress.
It’s said that Krishna himself used to chew it and we know from texts that it was chewed on a wide scale by the 5th century AD. The betel palm, which the betel nut grows on, is thought to have originated in Malaysia and Sumatra. It spread to the subcontinent where it is now cultivated.
The betel nut, or areca nut, grows on the betel palm tree, and the leaves which are the outer layer of paan come from the betel pepper vine.
There are 2 basic types of paan. One is tobacco paan, in which quids of tobacco are rolled into paan with a betel nut, or slivers of it. The other is sweet paan which includes the betel nut as well as some or all of the following ingredients: betel or areca nut, anise, cinnamon, cloves, green cardamom seeds, roasted fennel seeds, sweetened desiccated coconut, almonds, pistachios, rose petals or rose petal preserve, and preserved fruits as well as sugar syrup and dried dates. In special paan, edible silver leaf is included too. The leaves from the betel pepper vine are coated with a paste made from lime, not the fruit, but calcium hydroxide, and a pink substance called catechu which is a vegetable extract from the wood of the acacia tree.
The customer can choose what goes into the sweet paan and this depends not only on personal taste but on the reasons for buying the paan. For example, someone suffering with a sore throat might ask for paan with mahlati (dried ginger root) with betel nut and green cardamom seeds.
You can eat all of the sweet paan, if you wish, but you have to spit out the tobacco paan as tobacco is harmful for the stomach.
Modern research has shown that betel nut chewers risk the onset of diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular diseases.It might also be responsible for starting oral cancers. Its availability is restricted in the USA. However other research has shown that it could be useful for Alzheimer’s sufferers as it increases glucose absorption in the brain. There is also a school of thought that suggests it might be useful in the treatment of schizophrenia. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine it is used as a laxative and a digestive aid, while in Unanai medicine it is used to combat diarrheoa and urinary disorders.
A word of caution: first time chewers of paan often suffer from nausea, giddiness and feel as though they are in the initial stages of poisoning.