One of the my favorite food discoveries from the recent trip to India was Paan. When I was first offered Paan by some Indian friends, I was hesitant, because it's the type of thing -- leaves soaked in water, uncooked, filled with raw and unknown ingredients -- that a weak Western stomach is trained, even implored, to avoid. But fortunately, my desire to please my kind friends won out; Paan was one of my favorite discoveries of India.
Paan Wallah/ Jodhpur, India/ Dec 31, 2004
Specifically, Paan is made by taking a betel creeper leaf, adding some ingredients -- the masala-- and then folding it up into a triangle for chewing/consumption. The ingredients can be a wide range of things, but generally Paan falls into two main categories: Mitha (sweet) or Saadha (with Tobacco). The Mitha Paan (I didn't try the tobacco variety) usually has betel nut, lime paste, almond powder, grated coconut, pistachio powder, and sometime a very sweet cherry jam or chutney. The combination of all these ingredients makes for a very tasty and refreshing after dinner treat; the plant enzymes, lime paste, and mild stimulant from the betel nut acts as a digestion enhancer and breadth freshener.
I spend the rest of the trip asking people about Paan, and soon discovered there is a lot to Paan culture and Paan etiquette. Offering someone Paan, for instance, is a sign of respect. Shah Jahan, the architect of the Taj Mahal, once offered poisoned Paan to an unwanted suitor of his daughter. The young man, not wanting to offend Shah Jahan, accepted, ate the Paan, and died quickly thereafter. An interesting footnote to the story is that it was Queen Noorjehan, mother of Shah Jahah, who popularized the chewing of Paan in India. Queen Noorjehan discovered that by adding some ingredients to the Paan (probably betel nut I imagine), it enhanced the reddening of her lips, and was thus used by women as a beauty supplement.
You can order Paan online and find out more about its history at the definitive Paan website Paan.com.
NB: Story of Shah Jahan and Queen Norjeehan is pieced together from Paan.com, travel guides, and folk tales heard while in Rajasthan.
Update: Srini Tirumalai emails with a few corrections to my Paan post; "the sweetness in the paan is due to 'gulkand', a rose petal jam ...Saadha does not mean with Tobacco - it's the Hindi word for plain, as in nothing added...The Hindi word for Tobacco is 'Tambaku' - the type that's added in to a paan is usually called by it's brand name Tambaku No. 120, 160, 300 and 600. If you ordered a "120 Paan", the paanwala would make you a saadha pan with Tambaku No. 120/" -- Thanks Srini!
Another update: I've also gotten some notes warning about some of the dangers of Paan (bad for teethe, carcinogenic, etc.) so I wanted to pass those on. As with all things carcinogenic, it's really a question of exposure. A foreigner like me who tries Paan a couple of times of year doesn't have much to worry about, but the betel nut is addictive and carcinogenic, so more frequent indulgers should be careful.