Indians are nuts about betel leaf

It is a ‘quid-essential’ Indian story written in fountains of red ink all over the urban landscape: chewing on quid – a combination of betel leaf, nut and lime – and spitting out the brick red saliva is a national fad dating back five millennia.

Paan combines the betel leaf, nut and lime
Paan combines the betel leaf, nut and lime

Sanctified by ancient texts on religion, medicine, food and pleasure, the consumption of the heart shaped green leaf, colloquially known as paan, has today spurred a multi-million dollar agro-industry.


Wrapped around tobacco and condiments, paan is the pleasure food of one out of every ten Indians, rich or poor, which makes it one of the hottest trading items.


“On an average a paan-seller in any locality would be making a thousand rupees ($20) a day but in busy commercial areas five to six times more,” says Ram Das.


Wrapped around tobacco and condiments, paan is the pleasure food of one out of every ten Indians, rich or poor, which makes it one of the hottest trading items.

Das sells paan in a rented, four square feet stall in a central Delhi eatery, but even after paying the exorbitant rent he makes enough money to afford a car and a three-bedroom flat of his own. And, he knows at least four multi-millionaire paan shop owners in different parts of the cities, who, like him, have never seen the inside of a school.


“They are ordinary villagers like me who came to Delhi with nothing and today they live in farm houses and move in nothing less than a Mercedes or a Toyota.” 


Booming Business


Apparently, the sheer number of paan consumers explains the phenomenal success of traders, the most popular of whom operate from small roadside kiosks.


According to the government’s economic survey, the paan crop had an annual turnover of 800 crore rupees or $160 million in 2000, and subsequent estimates suggest a gradual rise.


On its own, the astringent and scented leaf with anti-bacterial qualities is recommended as a herbal mouth freshener by traditional doctors but, combined with narcotics like betel nut, shell lime and tobacco, it becomes a heady potion and the most obvious reason for its widespread consumption.


“Mine was the only shop in the area 60 years ago but today there are hundreds of shops in and around Connaught Place. However, my old customers are still loyal to me and come from far off places just to have my paan”

Shiv Narayan Pandey, 83.
New Delhi paan shop owner

The most popular varieties of the leaf, some named after kings and deities, come from Varanasi in north India’s Uttar Pradesh.


The mixing of the ingredients inside the folded leaf, mostly in milligrams, is a skill that can make or mar a reputation.


Says Shiv Narayan Pandey, 83, owner of a famous shop in Delhi’s Connaught Place: “Mine was the only shop in the area 60 years ago but today there are hundreds of shops in and around Connaught Place. However, my old customers are still loyal to me and come from far off places just to have my paan.”


“It is the quality of the stuff used and the touch of the paan-maker that decide the taste and customer loyalty,” he adds.


Customer Loyalty


Pandey boasts of a clientele from India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to famous film stars and artistes, many of whoM are still regular visitors to his shop.  


Betel leaf salesman in any
locality makes about $20 a day

India’s most celebrated painter M F Hussain has gifted Pandey a painting and the politically powerful clients, whose names he refuses to reveal, have rewarded his quality catering with a shop in North Avenue, a housing complex for Indian parliamentarians that is otherwise sanitized of commercial activity.


“Paan is a regal addiction but still an addiction and I am not sure my clients would like me to talk about it,” he says.  


According to him, “every other politician eats paan and the large number of spittoons that line the corridors of Parliament House on every floor are a good indicator of it.”


Pandey, like most of the consumers, is aware that quid is a blacklisted food but argues that a food that was part of royal hospitality in ancient India and is offered in religious worship cannot be bad “provided we follow the rules of eating.”


“Spit out the saliva after chewing on paan and eat paan only after food,” he recommends. Pandey himself has been eating paan “for six decades, thrice a day without any side effects.”


Health Hazards


Shamim Khan, an advocate who spends thrice as much on petrol as on paan on his daily visits to Pandey, chips in: “I started eating paan when I was 16 but 20 years later I am fit as a fiddle.”


Khan was advised against eating paan because it is believed to “ruin the voice and stun the mind” but his experience, he says, has dispelled the “myth.”


“I argue my court cases with a clear mind and even clearer voice.” He does not however eat paan at home because, “like smoking, it is considered rude to eat paan in front of the elders.”


Reference to paan (known as tambula in Sanskrit) in Vatsayan’s Kamasutra, India’s best-known sex guide, has also popularized it as a sensual delight and, precisely because of this reputation, paan is also a prohibited food for some, especially women. 


“Even to be seen around a paan kiosk would be considered indecent by my family although at home we are all regular paan eaters,” says Radha Natarajan, a 50-year-old Delhi University lecturer. 


For men, however, the kiosks have an appeal that goes beyond the stuff they sell. “It is a joint to catch up with friends over paan and smoke and to discuss which way the world is going,” says Kamal Trivedi, a young computer engineer.


Food Value


Many Indians also eat paan along with sugarcoated rose leaves, grated coconut and condiments like aniseed, cloves and cardamom as a dessert.


 Paan has been sanctified by texts on religion

 Paan has been sanctified by
texts on religion

The Indian custom of giving ornate paan-trays made out of gold and silver as part of a woman’s dowry, among Hindus as well as Muslims, is linked to the belief that paan is a regal food.


“It is a delicacy but today’s instant food culture has ruined its appeal,” says Sanjay Gupta, a young paan-seller outside a newspaper office complex close to Parliament Street.


He attributes the declining sale of fresh paans in his kiosk to the wide availability of tobacco mixes in the Indian market. “They are handy, cheaper and less messy than fresh paan but deadly in their impact.”


Romantic Experience


Experts confirm this view. The World Health Organisation and the Food and Drug Administration of America have blacklisted quid for “causing cancer in animals and carcinoma of the upper gastrointestinal tract in humans because of an alkaloid, arecoline.” 


The fresh paan is not exactly a health food, according to experts, but they concede that the narcotic ingredients inside the leaf get somewhat neutralized by the condiments.


Gupta, who could once make ten paans in a minute, says he is now out of practice because of a 40 percent decline in the demand for fresh paans. “The speed must have come down proportionately,” he says.


His earnings have not however suffered because he, like most pan-sellers, sells a variety of tobacco pouches, cigarettes and cold drinks along with fresh paans.


What Gupta misses about the business is the “romantic experience of fixing a paan in just the right mix and having customers compliment me in poetic language day after day.” 


Paan-making, he says, “is an art and every art needs a connoisseur to appreciate it”. Most people hooked on paan would agree.

Source: Al Jazeera

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