Mouth sweetener, freshener, digestive, symbol of hospitality—that's paan! Eating paan Indian food is popular all over Southeast Asia from India to Thailand and the Philippines to Vietnam. But it's not exactly a food, although it is consumed.
What is paan, exactly? Paan is made from betel leaves and it is eaten with various fillings put on top. The leaf is wrapped up and chilled prior to serving. It is also known as meetha paan, vettrilai or thambulum.
Problems With Paan
Plain paan is a stimulant with psychoactive effects on the body and is commonly mixed with areca nut. After chewing paan, most people swallow it or spit it out. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), chewing betel quids and areca nut are known to cause cancer in humans. Areca-nut paan with and without tobacco causes oral cancer risks to rise. That said, paan was once thought of as a symbol of Indian royalty, and the practice of chewing it dates back more than 2,500 years.
The skilled paan maker is known as a paanwala or paan walahin North India. They are known as paanwalas, panwaris or panwadis in other parts of India. Whatever you call them, the paan makers are often on street corners with recipes to enjoy paan. They serve fillings that can range from candied fruit, raisins, to mukhwas, cardamom, saffron, roasted coconut, Areca nut, slaked lime paste, and even edible silver leaf!
Well-made paan is a sight to behold. In ancient India, and even today in the homes of Paan connoisseurs, special paan folding techniques are used. The gilouri, or triangle shape, is most popular and the shape is held in place by first folding the paan as desired and then inserting a clove into it (to act as a pin). The prepared paans are then placed in a special covered dish called the Khaas Daan. There are varied opinions on whether paan should be swallowed after chewing or spat out (into a special spittoon) after the flavors have been enjoyed.
Pan isn't necessarily a food, and its nature has come under fire in many areas of India. In Mumbai, for example, officials have tried to put pictures of Hindu gods in places where people tend to spit it out. It has also been criticized for the health effects of people spitting it out in public places. More people nowadays chew tobacco instead, as water supply issues have made it harder to get the leaves.
Still, giving it out is commonly a sign of hospitality in many Indian homes. And for those who visit India, it is a common must-try practice. Though some say it can be harmful, enjoying various types of paan is a popular experience for many people who live in India, as well as those who visit the country.
Betel-quid and Areca-nut Chewing and Some Areca-nut-derived Nitrosamines. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Volume 85. International Agency for Research on Cancer. 2004.