Khaike paan Banaras wala…

How fast things around us change! Every time I’m travelling and go back to any city in India, I always encounter something new, something that didn’t exist the last time I was there. Mumbai for sure, is changing every day that too at such a “blink and miss” pace. New malls, new buildings, new coffee shops and eateries have cropped up in every single nook and cranny of the city. However, one thing that remains unchanged, are the paan shops or paantapris as they are popularly called. Paan shops are omnipresent. They are found in every by-lane of the city and they all have their string of loyal customers. These paantapris are also a hub for catching up on all the local gossip. They sell things right from tobacco, cigarettes and bidis to biscuits, chocolates and wafers and even cold drinks, but the real hero is thepaan!

Chef Anupa Das at a famous Panwala at Juhu Beach, Mumbai
The betel plant is a creeper with leaves that are heart-shaped and glossy, bright green in colour. They belong to the pepper family of plants and that probably explains their pungent taste. The origin of betel leaves has been traced to Malaysia, however, they have been a part of Indian history and culture for centuries now.
For religious ceremonies, the paan leaves are always used with the stem intact. I remember, paan leaves and thesupari or betel nut as being an integral part of almost all religious ceremonies we had at home. Money and betel nut are placed on the paan leaves and given as dakshina to the pundits. Betel leaves are also used to adorn the mouth of the kalash(pot) because it is believed to purify the water. Also considered a symbol of hospitality, the paan is also used to honor and welcome guests.
Paan Leaves stored in cold water
In South India, paan, supari, haldi and kumkum are offered to married ladies during the ‘Varalakshmi Puja‘ and on all auspicious occasions like marriages and festivals. At a Rajasthani wedding, there is a ceremony called the “niyona” where the groom and his baraat will eat food only after the elders of the bride’s party put a paan into the mouth of every guest. Even till this day, the auspicious paan leaves are used in several ceremonies throughout India and South East Asia.
The uses of this versatile leaf are not just limited to pujas and religious ceremonies. The custom of chewing paan has been embedded in our culture and history for ages. Right from thenawabs of Luckhnow to the workers in a factory in Tamil Nadu and to the housewives of Bihar, you can find people from all walks of life eating paan. There are nearly 32 varieties of betel leaves, but in India, three types of paan leaves, namely Kalkatta, Banarasi and Maghai are highly popular. Of these, the Maghai paan, which is grown in Bihar is considered to be the best. Paan leaves can easily be bought from any grocery or paan shop. They can cost anywhere between Rs 20 to Rs 500 for a pack of 100 leaves, depending upon the type and quality of the leaves. The paan leaves are stored in a steel bucket that is filled with cold water or a wrapped in a moist red cloth called the “shaal-baaf” and then kept in a metal casket called the paandaani.
One of the many special paans available in the market today

The making of a delicious paan is truly an art. Every paanwari has a unique style of paan making and uses different ingredients for the stuffing, which is often a closely guarded secret. The filling in the paan depends upon the type of paan you have ordered. Depending upon the betel leaf used and the ingredients that go into the stuffing, you have varieties such as Calcutta sada paan, Calcutta meetha paan, Banarasi paan, Chocolate paan, Masala paan, Luchknowi paan, Magai meetha paan, Magai sada paan and chooski paan, just to name a few.

The panwari applying katha and chunna to a paan leaf
To begin with, the paan leaf is de-veined and the stem is cut. This is done to remove the tiny earthworm like creatures often present in the betel leaves. The leaf is then smeared with chuna, which is essentially the edible variety of lime paste and katha or catechu – a brown-colored paste derived from the wood of the acacia tree, and these are briskly mixed together using the finger. Thereafter, various ingredients for the stuffing are placed on top. These can include desiccated coconut, meethi supari (sweetened areca nut shavings), saunf, elaichi, gulkand, powders of kaju, badam, nutmeg and cinnamon, candied cherries, laxmichura, etc. The paan leaf, complete with all the condiments and spices, is then folded into a triangle, called the gilouree and is held together with the pointed end of a clove. Alternatively, thegilouree is held together by a paper or foil folded into a funnel with the gilouree’s pointed end folded inwards. However, it is a rare practice these days. The more fancy and expensive paans are coated with silver warq.

For those who don’t like the taste of betel leaf, but relish the stuffing, can ask the paanwari for mava, which is nothing but a mixture of the ingredients that go inside a paan. Now days, the mawa that goes inside a paan is separately sold in tiny boxes or packets. If stored properly, this mixture can last upto a year. Indians settled abroad, who long for the very Indian flavours of the paan, but fail to get it easily, carry back mawa in substantial quantities.

A lot of people consider chewing paan as a bad habit. I beg to differ as thepaan by itself is good to eat, but it is addictive and toxic ingredients such as tobacco or supari that are harmful to the health. According to Ayurveda, chewing paan minus the harmful ingredients aids, digestion, keeps the mouth fresh, relieves hunger, reduces blood pressure and also strengthens the teeth. An application of ground paan leaves on the forehead near the temples, or few drops of the juice of the paan on the nostrils is said to provide relief from headaches. The choona that is applied on the paan has a very important role to play in the preparation of a good paan. It is the most natural form of edible calcium. However it is very important to get the amount ofchoona right as too much of it can cut the tongue.
To enjoy the full benefits of the paan, it must be properly chewed and swallowed. Spitting the paan is of no use, it is like spitting away all the benefits associated with it. As the paan is made with edible ingredients and there is no need to spit out any of it, unless of course there is tobacco, kathaor supari added inside. Chewing tobacco or supari is as harmful as smoking cigarettes.
Supari or chopped areca nuts

It causes discoloration of the teeth and gums, blisters, cardiovascular diseases, bronchitis and mouth cancer.Each year, several people die because of this addictive habit, especially in the South East Asian region where this is a common practice.

People who eat tobacco-filled paan and those who chew tobacco directly, have given the phrase “paint the town red”, a whole new meaning.Wherever you go, you can see walls and roads blotched with red-coloured spit. I strongly feel that those who dirty our cities and towns like this should be heavily fined. It is not only an unhygienic and dirty habit, but is also harmful to health in more ways than you can even imagine.
I am glad that the government has taken up this issue and is making people aware about the ill effects off chewing tobacco and spitting around carelessly. It is our duty, as responsible citizens, to create awareness about these things. Fortunately, most people are smart enough to make the correct decisions once they become aware of the ill-consequences.
The paan, ready to eat!
Paan is an acquired taste, you either like it or not, I am one of those people who love the taste of paan! Paan stuffed with elaichi, laung and gulkand is my favorite. It’s simple, tasty and effective. In fact, I have tried to infuse the flavours ofpaan into several of my recipes. While some of these dishes spelt disaster, a few of them turned out to be delicious! The paan-centered chocolates that we served during the recent launch of my book Aah!chocolate were a big hit with the crowd. Paan in savoury food, why not? Murgh Benarasi Beeda is a delicious starter. The betel leaves added to the marinade lends a completely new dimension to the dish! And then there is the delicious paan kulfi– which is an innovative blend of India’s two age old favorites, the paan and kulfi – This had to be great!
You can find a few more interesting and innovative paan recipes at Till then let me share the links to three of my favorite ones.
Paan Kulfi 
Murgh Benarasi Beeda 
Paan Chocolates

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