The Paan Play

Here is how the betel quid has redefined the idea of romance, power, hosting and, of course, wellness, in its 2,500 years of being an integral part of the Indian culinary matrix.

Let’s face it; when it comes to paan or betel leaf, the last assumption is of it being an essential kitchen ingredient. A popular chew and post-meal digestive, of course, but not so much a flavourant, tenderiser or even an aromatic such as saffron. Understandably so. For over two millennia of its existence, paan or betel quid’s central role has been that of a chew and one that can effectively help digest a big feast. And yet, paan has, in its lifetime, been an integral part of not only therapies but also making meals delicious and healthy.

While paan today plays the role of a popular chew, in India, it has traditionally been a part of therapies too.

A fine example of this is Chef Akshraj Jodha’s (Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat) legacy recipe called the Hara Maas. A signature dish from the house of Akheraj Deolia (a nobility from Rajasthan), this lesser-known meat version uses a combination of green herbs and betel leaf to lend the dish its unique taste, texture, and aroma. “But the role of paan,” says Chef Jodha, “isn’t limited to just the taste factor, which reminds you of the interesting play of astringent-sweetness of the leaf, but it also acts as a tenderiser for the meat and as a contrasting flavour that pares down the bitterness of coriander.”

“The dish,” continues the Deolia scion, who first showcased it at a chefs’ retreat based on back-to-roots concept, “while showcasing the subtle aspect of Rajasthani cuisine and its rusticity is also valued for its wellness aspect and is usually made when there is a change in weather.” Fascinatingly, Chef Jodha is not the only one who has worked with paan and extolled the virtues of the betel quid beyond a chew; legendary food historian Jiggs Kalra was a paan aficionado as well and used it in dishes to elucidate its virtues beyond a great digestive. “The beauty of paan,” he often said, “was that it brought in this amazing matrix of flavours and aromas that could easily crank up the taste quotient of a dish manifold thanks to the concentrate of oil each leaf is packed with.” It was this interesting foreplay of flavours that the iconic restauranteur tried to bring forth through his various creations where the betel quid played a significant role – be it with meat curries, pilaf with smoked paan to give it that festive aroma or the paan-flavoured cotton candy, which today is the signature post-meal treat at Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra. Each of the dishes beautifully capture the different ways betel quid can be worked when it comes to making a dish, a class apart. In fact, Old Delhi’s famous paan kulfi that is served traditional style at Daryaganj restaurant, stands testimony to our love for betel quid in all its forms, especially as a beeda – a colloquial name that identified the Mughal style of making the paan, which, chunna, katha and gulkand aside, had an array of interesting spices and herbs that made paan popular not just among the literati and the nautch girls but queens and kings too.

Such was the popularity of this balmy munch that doubled up as an effective mouth refresher (that could beat garlic as well) and a lip-colorant that within no time, it transformed from the gilori that was served at the end of a scrumptious meal. Muhammad bin Tughluq, who was said to have taken a liking to paan after having tasted it in the harem through one of his queens, made it a part of his welcome treat. Later, it become an indulgence in the Mughal court and power corridors thereafter. Interestingly, the popularity of paan dates back to 75CE when it was as important a part of the medicinal world as it was of food. In fact, according to Sushruta Samhitas, paan was a miraculous antidote that could not only take care of the chest but was great at the upkeep of the stomach as well, making it an essential component of kashayam making, along with pepper, ginger, honey and ghee. In the culinary world, it was the Kashyapa Bhojanakalpa that established paan as the post-meal digestive, thanks to the tannins and essential oils in betel leaf which give it that distinct sharpness which helps clear any form of congestion in the digestive tract.

Was this the reason that paan, which according to many historians such as KT Achaya, seems to have arrived from Malaysia, reached the royalty? According to European traveller Marco Polo, who was among the first to record betel chewing among kings and nobles in India back in the 13th century, it may have been one of the reasons, as veds and hakims were often employed as part of their retinue to not only look after their wellbeing but also play an important part in designing food habits that prolonged their life and kept them strong to rule. A fact that seasoned chef and culinary anthropologist Nimish Bhatia concurs wholeheartedly with. “No food in our tradition, at least until the 16th century, was designed purely on whim. They had their elements of wellness as food, for a long time, was considered the best way to health. Any ingredient that made it to the Samhitas was assured to find a place in the kitchen sooner or later, and paan, which grew in abundance, was no exception.” It did. Polo referred to the betel squid as “a rather interesting chew, crunchy on the outside and aromatic on the inside and almost melts in the mouth. Rich in ingredients, the best (part) is that they come in as many choices, not one resembling the other and each as addictive”. It was not just a beloved treat among Indians but quite an expensive export for the Europeans, who fell in love with the earlier iteration of what we call sada paan today. As for the paan growers, says culinary specialist Chef Sabysachi Gorai, “It was the original green gold as betel leaf, a climber abundant across the fertile lands of Bengal and Odisha, especially the areas surrounding Medinipur, needed little care and yet assured dividends that made paan growers rich.” How effective and addictive the crop was can be gauged by the fact that by the time the Delhi Sultanate became a seat of power, paan was worth its weight in gold. Often zamindars, nobility and even kings, were happy taking their share of profit in paan rather than gold coins.

Of course, by then paan wasn’t just a favourite chew but something that had religious as well as culinary importance, where it was being used in food for that distinct aroma and taste. One such dish is eastern Uttar Pradesh’s paan ki bhindhi, where stir fried okra gets much of its taste from the slivers of paan that is added to the dish, says Chef Bhatia, who introduced the dish as part of the menu at Nimisserie in Bengaluru. Another brilliant example is the paan ki biryani that was made on the Grand Trunk highway that joined the erstwhile Punjab, adds the seasoned chef. “The beauty of this version of biryani is that it uses a well-made meetha paan to infuse the biryani, especially the meat, with that quintessential paan flavours and aroma. Many believe that the use of paan’s different components such as the gulkand, was inspired from this version, one of which is found in Odisha.”

“The use of paan,” says Chef Gorai, “to enhance a dish’s taste quotient or extract a new facet of a produce, usually red meat, is a traditional practice followed in many places that once grew betel leaf (and still do) to make a wide variety of dishes including pitha and the paan ka kada that is a traditional cough syrup made to clear phlegm in the chest area.” In fact, the paan-ginger-honey-pepper concoction is a standard practice in eastern India to treat a variety of throat and stomach ailments – and has inspired many bartenders including Aman Dua to create his cocktails based on the paanch tatva (five elements) that make up the human body. His new cocktail menu at Raahi, in fact, is based on how paan was once used to treat not just the vagaries that hit internally but external wounds as well.

“Partly roasted betel leaf,” says Chef Bhatia, “with turmeric and ghee is used to treat a wide variety of wounds, scratches, even pimples and summer boils and is more effective than any modern-day ointment.” In Punjab, the saunfee variety is often had during winters as it is high on oils and more effective a guard against the cold, much like the Rela Mila Saag, which has paan as one of its five leafy greens that is also designed to keep the antioxidants level high in the body. Legend has it that it was once a popular dish in the Diwan household for winters and was often a part of the welcome meal for any guests who had endured a long, hard journey. History is replete with dishes that were an ode to the many properties of tamul or betel quid, which, as per the Kamasutra, was the balmiest treat for nerves and a proven aphrodisiac. A paan’s ability to turn lips red (often done by the khatta and limestone paste used in it) was, as a matter of fact, part of the traditional sringar that was considered to make women more desirable to men.

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The Chaurasia community, traditional owners of paan farms became masters of making different varieties of paan. It was this that turned the traditional antidote into a popular chew.

One such dish as per the royal book of recipes, Ni’matnama, curated by Ghiyath Shah, Sultan of Malwa, and his son Nasir Shah, in the 15th century, is the kufta. Essentially, meatballs that are folded in lime leaves and added to a broth. Another version calls for the use of betel leaves, and yet another has the minced meat seasoned with cumin, fenugreek, cardamoms, cloves, camphor, and musk, stuffed in screw pine leaves or in a basket made with sour orange leaves/betel leaves, cooked. Supashastra, a medieval Karnataka document, also mentions a dish made of bamboo shoots ground into a paste with ginger, onion and grated coconut, stuffed in betel leaves and steamed. A dish that is very similar to the pandan leaf fish that one finds in Asia or the paan-wrapped tofu made by Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Sriracha) who finds the banarasi variety conducive for the dish, “given the perfect balance between the sweetness and the sharpness that the leaf brings to the tofu once steamed”.

“The beauty of paan,” says Chef Shantanu Mehrotra (Executive Chef, Indian Accent), “is that it is one of the few leafy greens that yield to a certain technique, and hence makes for a fascinating ingredient to work with, especially if you are looking for a flavourant that can be aromatic and taste-making. But this also makes paan slightly trickly given that most varieties that are used in cooking – incidentally the same as the ones opted for a chew – are all high in oils. One of the finest ways that paan lends itself is either with steaming, slow cooking, blanching or making it part of a wet masala. But in a few cases, it works with deep frying as well; when paired with another more subdued leaf, it renders itself as brilliantly as in a beeda paan – a popular variety in the Mughal Court.” The dish Chef Mehrotra is talking about is the paan ki chaat, where he uses the shiso leaf to balance the sharpness of paan, which was then presented much like the palak ki chaat.

It was this multi-faceted use of the betel leaf that perhaps explains why at one point of time in the history of paan, India alone produced 100 varieties of betel leaf, each serving not just a particular group of patrons and their palate needs, but also culinary and religious demands. Today, only 35 out of those exists in India, of which, the popular ones are the Magahi, an expensive variety, grown in Aurangabad, Gaya and Nalanda; Calcutiya and Desi grown in Darbhanga, Samastipur and Vaishali districts and Jagannathi, a native of Odisha. The other reason, of course, was royal patronage. “Paan,” says Chef Gorai, “was one of those ingredients that never went out of fashion in the royal court. From the Mughals, especially Empress Nur Jahan who turned paan (and paandaan) into a symbol of power, to the seventh nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, the betel quid continued its reign where it showcased not just the importance of the person but their powers – and the beeda uthana, a kind of phrase that described work that was of great importance and danger.”

Paan leaf wrapped tofu
The paan leaf wrapped tofu at Chef Vikas Seth’s Sriracha uses the banarasi variety of the leaf.
Image courtesy Sriracha

Such was the value of paan in the harem that Padisha Begum often got grants of land that would afford the quantity of betel leaf accorded to her. In one of his accounts, French traveller Niccolao Manucci details the emperor Shah Jahan’s fondness for the betel quid. As a mark of his love for his eldest daughter Jahanara, he gave her the entire revenue of Surat in paan. The betel leaf also served as payment to any generals who had achieved a win of an important district and was often what kings celebrated important victories with. Such as the sultan of Malwa who celebrated his win over the Rajputs with 40,000 paans. “The paan’s power symbol can be ascertained from the fact that soon paandaan,” says Chef Mehrotra, “became a symbol of supremacy in the house and of great hospitality as well. So much so, that presenting elaborate paandaans became a tradition, and kharch-e-paandaan, the negotiation tool for nikahnama.”

The charm of the betel quid continued in colonial India as well albeit with one difference: instead of being the privy of royal corridors, paan had become a mainstay in tawaif khanas and lanes that played home to such gharanas. And these kothas became the custodians not just of royal etiquette, food and culture but also of the art of paan making. Most of the rich Chaurasia community who were the traditional owners of paan farms not only set up shop in these lanes but also designed newer varieties of betel quid that appealed to both the rich and the commoners. “In fact,” add Chef Gorai and Chef Bhatia, “much like the khansamas who kept the legacy of using paan to elevate the dishes in their restaurants or in the homes of new royalty, the Chaurasias became the masters of creating paans that could make your soul sing – each paan had its distinct making style and character. It is because of them that paan became a popular chew as they turned this traditional antidote into an indulgence.”

But what is it about paan that continues to make it relevant even today? “It’s because of its well-documented healthy properties,” says Ram Chatterjee (Wellness Advisor, Pullman & Novotel New Delhi Aerocity), who finds the betel leaf the only edible leaf variety that can be tweaked to be eaten as it is, to gain much of the antioxidant, antimutagenic and anticarcinogenic properties. “Think of it,” he continues, “the leaf is rich in vitamins such as vitamin C, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and carotene and are a great source of calcium. All of which you can consume as it is because even in its most popular version, there is no loss of nutrients since it doesn’t need to be cooked. Of course, the quantity is very small, given that a paan is usually made of half or one fourth of the leaf. This is the reason that dishes were made where, as part of the masala, the betel leaf retained much of those wellness benefits, few broken down for easy assimilation.”

A fact that is corroborated by the likes of Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, which showcase how differently the leaf helps heal. For example, the tikta and katu rasa i.e. bitter and pungent taste of the leaf, is to generate warmth in the body, with a strong ushna virya or potency. Moreover, these green bounties are blessed with kshara guna i.e. an alkaline quality, that effectively neutralises pH imbalances in the stomach and intestines, to vastly improve digestive health. Thanks to the numerous antimicrobial agents present in the leaf, the betel leaf can effectively combat a host of bacteria dwelling in the mouth which trigger a distinctly bad smell, as well as issues of cavities, plaque and tooth decay. The latter has been proven by a research article by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), in which the betel leaf is said to be an efficient detoxifier that helps remove toxins from the body. In other studies, the beetle leaf has been found to be beneficial for headaches, eye conditions, earache, mouth diseases, and colds in children. Furthermore, it helps with whooping cough, cold, heart conditions as well as respiratory problems. It is a benefit that was elucidated by Ni’matnama where it has been documented that “the qualities of the tambul are that the teeth are strengthened, diseases of the tongue, lips, gullet, throat and windpipe are prevented, as is inflammation of the chest.”

“The only caveat to this,” adds Chatterjee, “is the use of beetle nut and the limestone paste, which in fact are the problem and make the beetle quid bad for health. Have it without and a beeda packs all the works of an effective and efficient antidote that takes care of not just the stomach but the entire digestive and respiratory system.”

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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