India 2008: Great Expectorations

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, his magical realist tale of postindependence India, is awash in references to betel chewers, paan eaters, and trails of dark-colored sputum. There’s even a chapter called “Hit-the-Spittoon,” in which a character memorably declares: “Let the walls be splashed with our inaccurate expectorating!”

Paan, a mix of spices and stimulants wrapped in betel leaves, isn’t something most foreigners try, put off by fears of red-stained gums and carcinogens. But betel and paan are an old and pervasive part of Indian culture. Betel chewing seems to have been widespread in India by 400 b.c. The heart-shaped leaves are a traditional offering to the gods, and in Bengali weddings the bride’s eyes are covered with betel leaves until she sees the groom for the first time. Paan even turns up in the Kama Sutra, which recommends one be eaten to freshen the breath in the morning. Hindustan Latex, the government-run contraceptives maker, actually came up with a paan-flavored condom.

Typically the mixture in paan contains areca nuts, lime paste, and an extract of acacia wood (tobacco is sometimes added as well). With the betel leaves, these deliver a powerful astringency—hence all the spitting—often balanced with sweeter ingredients like dates, coconut shavings, rose petal jam, and menthol essence.

Some preparations can be seriously weird: Want to try diamond ashes or crushed pearls? Such gimmicky concoctions are dreamed up by paan wallahs who make outrageous claims for their creations, such as the “bed-breaker” paan (no explanation necessary). While the betel leaves and areca nuts give a mild psychoactive kick, paan is primarily used as a digestive, often in its sweeter meetha paan form. These are easier to consume, allowing first-timers to avoid the inevitable awkward moment: Spit or swallow?

Vikram Doctor is a columnist for The Economic Times in Mumbai.