The Miseducation of Paan
|The Curry Hill paan-maker working his magic|
Recently, a friend suggested that we stop for some paan in the “Curry Hill” neighborhood after dinner. Quite honestly, I hadn’t eaten paan in a long time and realized it was time for my palate to revisit, what I like to call, the Indian-style mint. As we watched the man behind the counter readily prepare our treat, I thought to myself how odd this must look to someone not familiar with the concept of paan. Well, it’s really just a green betel leaf rolled up with cloves, cardamom, peppermint, sometimes tobacco, and other ingredients that provide a sweet and aromatic taste. Gobbling up paan quickly won’t do anything for you - you’ll feel like you just ate grass. The point is to slowly chew and savor it so that the combined flavors of the leaf and other fillings may slowly be released to your taste buds. Also, be prepared for the distinct red staining of the lips caused by the betel leaf, which leads me to my next point…
Aah, paan…it really gets a bad rep, doesn’t it? Equated to such things as being the poor man’s chewing gum, an unsophisticated habit of supposedly uneducated folks, the cause of unsightly streaks of red on your clothing, of stains on your teeth, and of streetside filth in India…it’s no wonder most people outside of the South Asian subcontinent have never heard of it. Well, I for one, like to see the other side of paan, the one of Bollywood fame.
The popularity of paan-eating was aptly captured by the iconic song from the 1970s movie Don where Amitabh Bachchan played a streetside wanderer singing “Khaike paan banaras wala”. The gist of the song is that “by eating paan from Banares, you unlock your senses. Then what a miracle you will see, for it will straighten you out” (These translations always sound so awkward!).
My personal favorite paan song is “Paan khaye saiyaan hamaaro” from the 1960s movie Teesri Kasam. The song always makes me smile as the ethereal Waheeda Rehman dances to lyrics that go something like, “My beau eats paan. With his wheatish complexion and reddened lips, there are streaks of red on his white button-down tunic…” (Again, I never claimed to be an expert song translator!)
As I headed home from the paan shop that night with teeth stained red, I thought of how paan tastes just like its persona in Indian culture…a satisfying treat that is a conflict of sweet and bitter flavors all rolled into one.