I remember the days when our annual trip to Lucknow always included the daily trip to the Paan Wallah. Every meal we feasted on Mom’s food and could barely move. Then after a lazy siesta, saunter down the lane till we happened upon a Paan Wallah sitting in a closet sized shop blaring loud music and smoke from the ‘dhoop’.
“Sada or meetha?” he would ask — plain or sweet?
“Meetha,” we would reply.
The Paan Wallah smoothed a tender betel leaf. With lightning dexterity, his hands would fly over the containers crowding his shop. A little roasted fennel seed, some cloves, cardamom, betel nuts, tobacco paste, coconut flakes and rose paste all stuffed into the betel leaf, folded into a triangle and held together with a clove pierced through.
A normal paan is bigger than a large mouthful. The sweet juices burst in our mouth with a tantalizing mix of flavors and textures — the refreshing cardamom, peppery betel leaf, biting cloves, tangy fennel and sweet rose paste. The experience is as seductive and relaxing at the same time.
One needs to keep chewing to release the flavors; after about 10 minutes, all that remains is the leafy core. Then you can stick out your tongue to see if it is red. Search for the nearest garbage can and spit out the now stringy remains. In India, the potent sada paan is for those addicted to this amazing mouth freshner and digestive; most others prefer the meetha paan. I always ask for my meetha paan sans tobacco paste.
Back in Jakarta, with a big box of ‘Khajuri Paan’ (dates stuffed with paan ingredients) secreted in the fridge, I can still experience the taste from time to time but miss the ‘real’ thing.
Betel leaves are easily available in the vegetable section of supermarkets and the ‘pasar’ here in Jakarta. I have now found the best stop gap innovative paan in 3 simple steps:
1. Get a potted betel leaf plant for the balcony
2. Pluck a young betel leaf from the plant creeper growing in my balcony. Wash with cold water and wipe dry with a tissue paper.
3. Wrap it around a teaspoon of any sweet saunf (fennel) & supari (areca nut) mixture or ‘mukhwas’ available at most Indian grocery stores.
A great tasting paan with none of the fuss. Next time you have a party or watch an Indian movie or just feel nostalgic, make Paan!