After a hefty lunch today, I decided to gorge on the ever succulent delight, Paan. As I chewed and enjoyed the aromatic juices of this delight, my mind transported me into a different world, a world I cherish the most, my childhood days spent in the beautiful landscapes of Shillong. My earliest memories of paan dates back to my childhood when I used to visit the local market with my father and gaze curiously at ladies selling green heart shaped leaves. As a child I was always curious to taste and find out what this green leaf wrapped with white lime and dried nut like things are. My escapades with paan are never-ending and during my stay in shillong I did try to experiment with paan, although I never got addicted to it.
Betel leaf or paan usually eaten at the end of a meal to aid digestion is a substitute for a dessert. The Paan culture in India dates back to the medieval times when it was chewed as a palate cleanser and a breath freshener and was offered as part of hospitality, friendship and love. Paan represented royalty in the old era .The rich Zamindaars would flaunt their gold, silver and bronze metallic vessels filled with paan at every gathering. Chewing paan was almost a rage and a fashion statement back then. These glossy and heart shaped leaves are grown extensively in India.There are many varieties of betel leaves and each region has its own speciality ,starting from the Benarasi paan from Benraras to Bangla paan from Bengal, Maghadi paan in Bihar to kuwai in North east India. Paan was used by women as a natural ingredient for makeup and cosmetics to add natural red colour to the lips. Paan eating was taken to its zenith during the pre-partition era in North India, mainly Lucknow, where paan eating became an elaborate cultural custom, and was seen as a ritual of sophistication.
Apart from adding freshness and royalty ,Paan forms a vital part of our customs. During Pujas and hawans, paan is used as an important ingredient of the ceremony. No Bengali marriage is complete without the bride and the groom eyeing each other through covered paan leaves – “Subho Drishti” as its is called. After every Pooja, paan is offered and is considered to be very auspicious. There is a romanticism associated with paan and stories of rich young zamindaars indulging on music and dance with paan inside kothaas form the back drop of many famous Bollywood movies.
Gone are the days when paan was a food for the elite. Today we find paan shops in every nook and corner. Preparation of paan is an art and the secret technique is passed down from generation to generation. There are several ways a paan can be folded and this itself is a special branch of the paan culture. The traditional way of paan making, storing and serving is interesting. The leaves are stored by wrapping them in a moist, red coloured cloth inside a metal casket called ‘paandaani’. While serving a leaf is removed from the wrapping cloth and lime paste is generously applied on its surface. This is topped with tiny pieces of areca nuts, cardamom saffron, coconut pieces/powder, cloves, etc., according to taste.
Such is the glorious history of this mouth freshner that it has fascinated generations. Who can forget the blockbuster song ” Khai ke paan benaras waala” featuring the bollywood living legend, Amitabh Bachhan. Paan has framed it’s name in history and forms an integral part of our lives and while I enjoyed my mouthful of flavour bursting paan today, I hope the next time you enjoy this gastronomic delight, the rich heritage charms you too but with a caution “Donot dirty the places around with your paan spit ” and help keep our country clean.