A Paean to Paan

An Indian shopkeeper arranges paan (betel nut products) in silver foils at his roadside shop in New Delhi, India. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Oh my love's like a red, red rose...or my red, red-stained teeth from eating too much paan.  A recent feature in New York Press detailed one man's love affair with paan, the small, betel-leaf wrapped parcels containing various pastes, seeds, and other condiments that are ubiquitous all over South Asia. Paan ignoramuses, however, would find it challenging to detail this unique palate cleanser as methodically as the author Jeffrey Stanley does in his entertaining piece, "Confessions of a White, Middle-Aged Paan Eater."

Many South Asian cultures consume paan as a digestive, although the practice is concentrated in India. There, paan-wallahs are the street-side vendors who expertly create the colorful and enigmatic concoction (always fun to watch), which contains a paste of acacia nut, slaked lime-calcium hydroxide, fennel seeds, crushed areca nuts, and a number of other equally disparate and slightly mystifying ingredients, all wrapped and folded into triangular shapes similar to paper footballs.

Paan chewers are also notorious in India—specifically, those who chew the savory version that includes tobacco. These chewers spit the residue rather than swallowing the paan, leaving amber splatters on sidewalks, building corners, and any number of nooks and crannies that require imagination to locate and accurate aim to deposit. This tends to give certain Indian city streets a vague sepia tinge, but Stanley's article focuses on meetha paan—sweet paan, which the author is endeared to, and which constitutes a much less severe civic irritation since this variety is entirely edible.

Of course, the downside to meetha paan (and tobacco-infused paan as well) is the telltale red tinge that creeps into the spaces between your teeth. Well, that and the carcinogenic ingredients, of course.

From describing his initiation into the practice of paan-chewing to drawing interesting comparisons to the tobacco-dipping culture of his Appalachian relatives, Stanley seems to have seriously and diligently researched this "local" practice. But the result is a riot for those familiar with paan chewing or chewers, if only for the novelty of reading an eloquent homage to the substance.

Related link:
Jeffrey Stanley's article in New York Press