After a hearty dinner in Mumbai, you might be ready for something sweet. Perhaps feasting tired you out. Maybe you’re suffering from indigestion. You undoubtedly have pungent spices lacing your breath. Whatever the post-meal malady may be, one cheek-full of paan can solve it.
This after-dinner wonder comes wrapped in a betel leaf, which acts as a mild stimulant. Inside, you’ll find the popular Indian digestive aid known as mukhwas, a mix of colorful candied seeds and nuts, such as fennel, sesame, coconut, and anise. Snuggled alongside the mukhwas are cardamom, saffron, and a host of dried fruits. Often, each leaf will contain more than a dozen of these sweet, chewy ingredients. Paan may include tobacco and shaved areca nut, though “sweet paan” usually indicates otherwise.
To enjoy this mainstay at Indian social gatherings, stuff the entire, triangular parcel in your mouth. Masticate just enough to start releasing the powerful medley of sweet herbs and spices. Swallow the juice, tuck the cluster in your cheek, repeat. Don’t be alarmed if you appear to be bleeding; betel leaf turns brick red as you chew it (though if there’s tobacco inside, you might be bleeding). Once you’ve sucked all the flavor from the bundle, spit out the remains.
Stomach soothed, sweet tooth satisfied, breath fresher, and slightly higher than before, you’ve conquered paan. But be warned, this too-good-to-be-true treat has its risks. Tobacco is a well-known carcinogen, as is the areca nut, which is a popular paan component and widely chewed throughout Southeast Asia. Unsurprisingly, the cancer-causing blend is cause for concern.
Even though Indian royalty have chewed pan for more than 2,500 years, spitting blood-red juice in public areas has become problematic in recent years—not only in parts of India, but all the way in Jackson Heights, a paan-filled neighborhood in Queens, New York.
If you’re still deciding between reaching for a cigarette or betel leaf after dinner, consider this: One hit of sweet paan poses fewer risks and lasts longer. Whatever poison you pick, don’t spit it on the sidewalk.
Need to Know
In North India, expert paan-makers are called "paanwala" or "paan walahin," and "panwaris" or "panwadis" in other pats of the country. You can find them on street corners selling all kinds of paan.