India is known for its unique, flavorful cuisine. Every dish is a myriad of complex flavors and layered spices. The same can be said about the varied and popular mouth freshener/digestive called paan.
Go anywhere in India and you will find a stand selling it somewhere. When I was in Assam, everyone from children to elderly family members casually chewed paan multiple times a day.
As alluded to before, paan comes in many forms — from sweet to bitter to minty. Some forms contain tobacco and are treated like chewing tobacco. There is even a stand in Delhi that sells flaming paan, where whole cloves sticking out of the top are lit on fire and handed to the customer.
The main component of all paan, however, is a green edible leaf which is folded or rolled to contain the filling of choice. Regardless of the variety, in my experience foreigners who try it either love it or hate it. Unfortunately, in both semesters here I have been the only program member who loves it. The reason for their aversion to one of my favorite treats is due to an ingredient that has only recently gained popularity in the U.S. — rose.
A sweetened rose petal preserve referred to as gulkand is a major component in meetha paan (sweet paan). This, combined with the initial bitterness of the betel leaf, can cause some people to feel like they are eating perfume. In meetha paan, the bitterness is combated with a generous addition of dried coconut and maraschino cherries, among other ingredients.
Oh, and it is sometimes topped with edible silver leaf. The presentation itself is impressive, and the flavor is definitely unique.
While it is not for everyone, paan remains one of my favorite foods to get when I’m out in the city. I sometimes call a friend to go out specifically for a meal followed by paan.
I can only hope that I can find betel leaves back in the U.S. so I can make paan myself, as I can’t take the fresh leaves back with me. Adjusting to not having paan may take some getting used to.