Friday, January 25, 2008

Meet the Paan Wallah

Can I introduce you to the Paan Wallah? You’d walk straight past him, I bet, with your eyes politely focussed on the middle distance, in case being caught looking committed you to anything. I know I would. But I am in the presence of an expert, and on his recommendation, we approach with intent. The paan-seller’s pavement stall is no more than a metre square, curtained in bright orange silk. There are less reputable outlets, but our man’s credentials lie in his proximity to the restaurant behind him, whose acceptance endorses his wares.
We order Meetha Paan all round, then, mesmerised, watch its five-act creation. A dainty package, pungent with sweet spices and fruit, taken after meals to aid digestion, cleanse the palate and freshen the breath, Meetha Paan can be bought on every street corner in India. I don’t think they sell it in Sainsbury’s.
Paan is made with betel leaves, and you’re thinking, that’s a Bad Thing, surely? I used to think that, until today. Betel nuts are from the Betel Palm (not nuts at all, really), and are chewed whole or crushed into a different kind of paan. It’s a stimulant, which produces mild euphoria, and heightens awareness. Wait, there’s a downside. As well as staining the mouth and teeth red, with prolonged use, the betel nut is a known carcinogen. What’s more, eventually, the gums recede, and the teeth fall out. There’s some evidence that betel prevents dental cavities, which is why it was used as an ingredient in toothpaste - but what is the point of having a perfect tooth, if it’s in the palm of your hand? Paan made with betel nuts often also contain tobacco, which only reinforces the health risk. Don’t worry, our paan are made with the leaf of the Betel Pepper, a completely different plant, which contains a digestive enzyme called Pepsin (origin of the Pepsi brand). Our teeth will be unsullied, you’ll be glad to know.
The paan-seller takes a heart-shaped betel leaf, and smears lime paste on it with a finger. To concoct the filling, he sprinkles cardamom, fennel seeds, coconut powder, cloves, from a battalion of glass-lidded stainless steel containers in front of him. He catches a fingerful of honey, and binds the small heap of spices and seeds together into a scented slurry, which he tops with rose petal paste, and shards of date. The smell is like cachous, but edgier than violets. He deftly wraps the leaf into a tiny triangle, like a samosa, and hands it to me in a napkin. “Eat,” he says. “Is good for digest.”
I haven’t eaten leaves since an ill-advised experiment with privet, at the age of six. I look at my betel leaf, and I’m very unsure; all of me wants to, except my mouth. The paan-seller insists. This is no time for faint-hearted nibbling. I put the whole paan on my tongue, and chew. My mouth explodes with sweetness and spice. The broken leaf is an odd sensation, but you need to chew, chew, chew, until your whole self is suffused with fragrance. The garlic is banished, and the car smells like a rose-garden.
As we drive away, the paan-seller wipes his sticky, spicy fingers on the orange silk covering his stall.