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The paan-India habit

If there is one edible thing that has a pan-India appeal, it is “paan”, though there are health concerns surrounding it. The fascination for betel leaf extends across the country — from Banaras to Belur, from Baroda to Bongaigaon! There is no doubt, that this betel leaf preparation is India’s favourite delicacy. Every street corner has its little paan shop.

The paan-wala in the northern parts of India has a regal presence. There is a fragrance that hangs around him. His compact shop is packed with varieties of betel leaves, dozens of silver containers and copper pots. Wiping his hands off his red rag cloth, he is truly an artist, as he gets to work. His canvas is the green betel leaf. He coats it with a calcium paste in white, adds a liquid in brown, and then, mixes the colours to a light pastel shade. His nimble fingers now get into action — a dash of powder from one container, a sprinkle of coconut filings from another and a shake from another dispenser. He tops it with a spoonful of rose-petal paste, a pod of cardamom, folds the betel leaf in a triangle and hands it out in style. For special customers, he has an ice box filled with customized, frozen paan, the betel leaf embossed with a silver foil and with a cherry-top toothpick to hold the leaf together. Who can resist this indulgence?

The South Indian betel leaf is slightly different. It is smaller, greener and spicier in taste. There are not as many paan-shops in South India, but the fixation for the delicacy is no less. In earlier times, bus journeys were a great opportunity to observe betel-leaf aficionados who sat beside and indulged in the pastime. Much like the cellphone is an integral part of a person today, in those days, it was the compact, silver betel-nut case. Open the case, and it was stacked with sheaves of betel leaves. The indulgent carefully pulled out a couple of leaves, shook off the water droplets and peeled off the tiny leaf-stalk. His fingers dug out some slaked-lime paste from a side-compartment. He finger-painted the betel-leaf and topped it with a sprinkling of fragrant betel-nut flakes. He meticulously rolled it up in a bun, and even as we watched curiously, popped it into the mouth. With the betel leaf tucked in a ball to one side of his cheek, he was a changed personality! The irritation that accompanied the long, arduous bus journey was gone. His face exuded an indescribable calm and happiness. He was at peace with himself and with the world at large!

Betel leaves have a prominent presence in South Indian weddings. They are given a prime place in the wedding hall with a table specially reserved for this. The betel leaves are arranged on a silver tray with the accompaniments: packets of aromatic betel nut crushed powder, areca nut sliced flakes and a bowlful of sugar crystal. By mid-day, the hoopla of the wedding celebration comes to a close and the hall empties out. The blazing sun outside, the coolness of the hall, the satiation following a full wedding-meal, all combine to keep the last few guests still lingering in the hall. They laze around the hall to catch a quick, afternoon siesta and then reach out for the betel-leaves. As they work on the betel leaves in the mouth, it is best to avoid conversation. Betel leaves and conversation do not go together. Much as we would like to know if they need a ride back home or a cup of coffee, we get no proper answers. The lips are stained a bright red and the juices threaten to overflow the sides of the mouth. All they can do is nod, mumble and gurgle incoherently. We leave them to complete their rumination!

The names are many, beeda, maghai, Benarasi and vethalai-paakku, and the indulgence in betel-leaf is truly a connoisseur’s pursuit, where sight, smell, taste and after-taste all intermingle to make it such a delightful experience. It is iconised in film and song. Who can forget Amitabh Bachchan’s foot-tapping song in the 1970s, “khaike paan banaras wala”?

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 12:22:30 AM |

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