Paan is an Indian and South East Asian tradition of chewing betel leaf (Piper betle) with areca nut and slaked lime paste. Originally chewed as a palate cleanser, a breath freshener, and for digestive purposes. It is offered to guests and visitors as a sign of hospitality (after meals at both personal and social occasions) and at the beginning of social events. It has a symbolic value at ceremonies and cultural events in India and south-east Asia.
Paan has various forms and flavours. The most commonly found include:
Tobacco (tambaku paan): Betel leaf filled with powdered tobacco with spices. Never touched this one.
Areca nut (paan supari, paan masala or sada paan): Betel leaf filled with a mixture consisting of a coarsely ground or chopped areca nuts and other spices. Had once or twice due to acute need. I had to go to office the next day. No leaves left and then only this leaf can help.
Sweet (meetha paan): It is the most celebrated one by folks of all ages. Betel leaf with neither tobacco nor areca nuts. The filling is made up primarily of coconut, fruit preserves, rose petal preserve (gulkand) and various spices. Often, it is also served with a maraschino cherry.
Trento (olarno paan): Tastes like betel but has a minty after taste. Eaten along with fresh potatoes, it is served in most Indian restaurants. Never seen or heard till now, but life is a journey.
Being a Bengali by birth and origin, Paan is more special to me.
In the Bengali weddings the bride enters the marriage podium covering her face with two palm leaves. She will remove them at the auspicious time of exchange of first glances with the groom. All through the ceremony she will keep two whole betel nuts tucked in her cheeks. A tray full of well-decorated paan is an essential part of the wedding trousseau. Bengali grooms go to the house of bride carrying a betel nut cracker. These used to be made of silver, gold or brass and were exquisitely carved making them a collector’s delight today.
One of the Paan leaf variety is named after the erstwhile capital of India, Calcutta. Then there is another, the Bollywood promoted and supported Benarasi Paan. All the big superstars have endorsed it romantically and intellectually. First Mr Bacchan and then following him Mr SRK in the film Don.
Paan, though is of the colour Green, makes its presence felt with its association with the colour Red. If you have seen red stains on the wall or floor, behold , a Paan chewing intellectual is near by. To differentiate a Government Building from others, do not gaze at the Boards, but glance at the galleries and the walls. Paan has already stamped its authority and validation.
The skilled paan maker is known in North India as a paanwala. In some parts of northern India, paanwalas are also known as panwaris (or panwadis). Many people believe that their paanwala is the best, considering it an art that takes practice and expert touch. People are often possessive and proud towards their own and humble Paan ki Dukkaan. I reminisce a Govinda Song, one time favourite of mine, which goes like, “Neeche Paan ki Dukaan, Uper Gori ka Makaan”. Paan Shops are most of the times the place to be in the evenings. You can find Male members of the society paying a visit to these temples several times a day! These places are all in one shop for all needs. Be it cigarettes of any brand, Paan, Mouth fresheners, Paan Masala and many more things of desire and habit.
The thing I like the most is the PaanDaani. Do not confuse it with the spit basin. These ornamental pieces made of Silver are a thing to collect. They look royal and gives a classy look to the place. It may be because of its association with Kings and Nawabs of yore.
The preparation of a Paan is a spectacular event. I always am mesmerized by the rapid strokes of the Paanwaala on the canvas of the Green Leaf. Masterfully filling it with various colours and objects, while his hands show a superb show of resourcefulness picking the needful from all around him with unimaginable precision. The leaf is then folded in a special manner into a triangle, called 'Gilouree' and is ready to be eaten. On special occasions, the gilouree is wrapped in delicate silver leaf (vark). To serve, a silver pin is inserted to prevent the gilouree from unfolding, and placed inside a domed casket called 'Khaas-daan'.Some paan makers insert pointed end of clove to prevent the 'Gilouree' from unfolding. Alternatively, the gilouree is sometimes held together by a paper or foil folded into a funnel with the gilouree's pointed end inserted inside it. Nowadays the toothpicks are used.
The leaves are glossy and heart shaped. Thus the inspiration in the game of Cards where the so called “Hearts” is lovingly named Paan. Paan's association with Ladies is of historic importance. At one time paan served the purpose of lipstick. The pouting red lips of young women have been the theme of many folk songs as well as classical literature. While I write the previous line, I am imagining the same on the girl of my dreams.
Paan is often used for cooking. Meat is cooked wrapped in paan leaves and cooked. Other fillings like shrimps, shallots and peanuts are often used in South East Asia. Platters are decorated with paan leaves. I am sure going to overeat those too. And this way my journey with my mate Paan will go on. I will sign off with the lines, “Jab tak rahega samose me Aalluu, Khaane e bad ek hi iccha, Bhai, ek minute, ek Paan khaluu”