Banarasi paan: Savour the flavour of the GI-tagged mouth freshener

Traditional Banarasi paan got the GI tag in March this year along with the Banarasi Langra mango. The recognition cements what we have known all along: there is no other paan like the paan of Banaras

May 22, 2023 06:54 pm | Updated June 09, 2023 06:25 pm IST

Banarasi Paan

Banarasi Paan

Every region in India has its own version of paan and almost everyone in India eats, if not loves, it. But there is something about Banarasi paan that sets it apart. Is it the leaf, the ingredients, or is it the preparation? It is hard to pick but one thing is clear, there is no paan that tastes like Banarasi paan.

While across the country paan is evolving into new avatars — think chocolate, butterscotch paan, and even blueberry strawberry paan, in addition to the social media-friendly ‘fire paan’ — in Varanasi it is still preferred the classic way. Eaten with kattha (catechu) which is an extract from the Acacia tree, chuna (limestone paste), supari (betel nut), and in some cases tobacco, it is the quintessential old fashioned paan that lets you enjoy the subtle nuances of each ingredient.

Banarasi paan being made

Banarasi paan being made | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The story of Banarasi paan

“Paan is considered auspicious in Varanasi. Belief is that the first-ever seed of paan was planted by Shiva and Parvati at Mount Kailash from where they brought it to Kashi. Since this is the city of Shiva, it became a part of life here,” says Rajeev Manhar, vice president Brij Hotels, who lives and works in Varanasi.

Folklore here also connects paan to the Ramayana. “It is said that when Hanuman visited Sita in Ashok Vatika and she had nothing to give him as a gesture of affection, she plucked paan leaves and quickly made a garland of it. And so, even today paan is offered to Hanuman, especially in Varanasi,” adds Rajeev.

“Paan is a way of life in Varanasi,” says Anubhav Sapra, the founder of Delhi Food Walks who has been travelling to Varanasi for many years to research and chronicle the street food. “I have tasted paan from across the country, but I haven’t eaten anything like Banarasi paan.” The paan here, according to him, is much beyond a snack, a mouth freshner or a condiment. It is an emotion.

It’s all in the leaf

Every region has its preferred betel leaf. “It is the way the leaf is treated in Varanasi (in a process called pakana which literally translates to cooking but means ripening of the leaf) that makes it softer than any other, which is why Banarasi paan melts in your mouth,” explains Anubhav.

Folded Banarasi paan

Folded Banarasi paan | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Interestingly, the leaf that gives the Banarasi paan its identity is not grown in Varanasi: it is from Bihar, Bengal or Odisha.

“Of the 90 varieties of the betel leaf that grow across the world about 45 are found in India. A lot of it also comes from Bangladesh which has perfect climatic conditions for its farming,” says Rajeev. While Bengal and Bangladesh are known for the volume of production of the leaf, it is the Bihari Maghai or Odiya Jagannathi leaf that is popular in Varanasi. The Maghai leaf is used from December to May, Jagannathi is used from June to November.

Cultural significance

Apart from its taste and finesse, Banarasi paan is also popular for its cultural significance. In Varanasi, paan shops can be found at every corner, and also by the Ganges. Everyone has their favourite stall, and each panwari (paan maker) has his own style. “The Banarasi paan became popular when Bachchan ji sang a song about it. But recently with Modi ji talking about it too it has gained even more popularity,” says Rajan Chaurasia, the second generation owner of Ramchandra Chaurasia Tambul Bhandar.  

According to Rajan what makes the Banarasi paan most special is the process of ripening it. “The leaves are smoked in a dark room with special coal and wood and checked frequently. This not just bleaches the leaf, especially Maghai, but also makes it so soft that it melts in your mouth.”

There are four varieties of paan that are commonly made in Banaras. The sada or plain which is made just with supari, kattha and lime, meetha or sweet — simple sada paan in which the leaf is sweeter and gulkand ka meetha which is a paan made with hira-moti chutney (a sweet mix) and zarda which is made with tobacco.

Over time these stalls have become community spaces where locals converge. “Paan shops are places where locals hang out and discuss local politics, ongoings in the city, and comment on matters of universal importance. It is a common thread that binds the people here,” says Rajeev.

Benarasai Paan at Brij Rama Palace

Benarasai Paan at Brij Rama Palace | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

And does the GI tag matter to the public? “Most people in Banaras will not even know that we now have a GI tag,” says Rajeev. For the common man, he adds, paan has been a way of life since the beginning of Varanasi and a tag will not change anything. For the rest of the world though the recognition will help people understand the nuances of paan in this city.

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