Recently, a kind of eat that is India’s hottest street food has been catching attention on social networks. A green leaf wrapped up with a pile of unknown ingredients, and ignited into the mouth, it can be seen aplenty in India. This post-meal condiment, called Paan, is green in looks and can be eaten with a mixture of flavors. It makes you dizzy and at the end of it all, eaten you have but what you cannot say …… this eat with enigmatic qualities, is a reflection of the complexity of Indian culture.
Complex ingredients varied in taste
Paan is a Hindi word for betel leaf. It is also known as gutka (which can refer specifically to the substance containing tobacco ingredients, or be used as a generic term), zarda, etc. In terms of composition, some say that paan is the common betel nut, others say it is a chewable tobacco, and still others feel it resembles chewing gum. From the way of consumption, some categories of paan can only be chewed but not swallowed, and some will make people spit out red juice, while others can be swallowed after chewing.
In fact, the most basic ingredients of paan include betel leaf, betel nut crushed, shell powder, pediatric tea, peppermint oil, rosehip paste; plus a variety of spices, such as fennel, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and other spices, almonds, pistachios, peanuts and other nuts; and chocolate sauce, lime sauce, shredded coconut, saffron, and so on and so forth. Tobacco is added for tobacco addiction, others have a variety of flavours such as fruits plus strawberries, mangoes, kiwi, etc, sweets plus fructose, milk sugar and even syrup. (Of course, there is no Indian who does not like sweets) …… there is nothing you can think of that cannot be added to the Paan. In fact, many vendors selling paan relish their own secret recipe. Customers just come to eat it, the store does not want you to know what you are chewing. For those who like paneer, the feeling it gives them, to paraphrase the classic line from Forrest Gump, is that life is like paneer, you never know what the next bite will taste like.
This reporter once dared to try a Paan in the commercial center of New Delhi’s Connaught Place. A bite resulted in various rich flavors like an atomic bomb explosion in the mouth going straight up to the brain, and he did not dare to take a second bite and spitted it out. As for the fiery Paan, the reporter did not dare to try. It is said that the powder added to the Paan that can be ignited is camphor powder. There are also some stalls selling ice Paan — with crushed ice — and even in the fiery Paan ice can be added. The experience can really be called “ice and fire”.
Paan is very popular in India, and there are no less than ten small kiosks and mobile stalls selling paan in New Delhi in Connaught Place alone. There is also a small store near the Parliament building that advertises itself as being “exclusively for Parliamentarians”. The price of paan varies greatly depending on the ingredients used. The most expensive ones are said to cost up to 5,000 rupees!
Sacred symbol of love and fidelity
According to the Indians themselves, India was/is the first country in the world to consume paan, which has been around since the Vedic period, that is, earlier than 1000 BC. According to Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine, the betel nut, shell powder and catechu in paan are good for health care and are a cure for all diseases, from promoting saliva secretion for digestion, cleaning the mouth and freshening breath, to antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, treating diabetes, lowering cholesterol and protecting the heart, and even an antidepressant.
Hindu legend has it that paan has a halo of sanctity. It is said that the betel nut is a treasure that gushed out from the sea of milk when Hindu gods were searching for treasures at the beginning of creation, and many Hindu gods live on betel nut leaf; the ancient sacred books mention that the great god Shiva, one of the main Hindu gods, and his wife Parvati, the goddess of the snowy mountains, personally planted the betel nut tree when they were practising penance in the Himalayas. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, when Hanuman, the monkey god, finds Sita in Sri Lanka, Sita greets Hanuman with a betel leaf garland. To this day, betel leaves are still an indispensable offering for various worship ceremonies in India.
In traditional Indian weddings, paan is also a necessary item, as betel leaves and betel nuts symbolize love and fidelity. At the time of engagement of couples, exchange of betel leaves between the man and the woman represents approval of the two families for the marriage. At the wedding, after the tilak ceremony, in which the groom is given a red dot on his forehead, the bride and groom consume the paan containing betel leaves and nuts together, signifying that the couple will be inseparable from each other from then on.
Different opinions whether it is beneficial or harmful
While Ayurveda reveres paan, modern medicine considers this food harmful. The greatest danger is oral disease, and it is reported that Indians have the highest rate of oral cancer, accounting for 30-40% of all cancers, which is closely related to the large number of people who enjoy paan. According to the Indian tobacco industry reports, chewing tobacco accounts for nearly half of India’s tobacco consumption.
Paan also brings trouble to India’s cityscape, the streets of India often see a patch of rusty dark red, that is, caused by people spitting out the residue and saliva after chewing paan. Once, the reporter and colleagues were walking in the street, with a bus passing by, only to hear the colleague utter “ouch”, on seeing a red stain on his shirt. We were angry and disgusted, but the perpetrator had long since disappeared.
According to Indian media reports, Kolkata’s famous Howrah Bridge is full of rust stains caused by Paan, and because acidic substances contained in paan caused a lot of damage on the bridge metal, some experts even predict that if no measures are taken in the long run there is risk of collapse of the bridge.