Paan: A paan, to us growing up in North India was a mouth freshener after a heavy meal. We were told that it helped digestion, and thus had a reason to eat it. Today, when I go back to India, I make sure that I have at least two paans whenever I can – perhaps just to make up for lost opportunities.

While the paan is often linked to India, it is a tradition in South, East and South East Asian as well, which consists of chewing a combination of shavings of the areca nut, sweetened coconut, rose petal jam, lime (edible calcium carbonate), Cardamom, Camphor, Roasted fennel seeds, Nutmeg, Anise seeds, Licorice, Almond Cashew, Pistachio, fruit preserves and Katha (a paste derived from the wood of the acacia tree), according to the eater's personal preferences, all rolled in a betel leaf. On special orders, chewing tobacco is also added. There are 32 varieties of the betel leaf forming a huge industry all over India with betel leaves grown in different parts of India and Bangladesh.

In the Indian Subcontinent chewing of betel leaf and areca nut dates back to circa 2600 BC. Formerly it was a custom of the royalty, and lovers because of its breath-freshening and relaxant properties, hence the attached sexual symbolism.

While a paan has a symbolic value at ceremonies and cultural events in south and southeast Asia, day-to-day use is as a palate cleanser and breath freshener after a meal, and also often offered to guests and visitors as a sign of hospitality.

But the paan is much more than a digestive aid. It has its place in literature, sacred ceremonies, poems and of course, Bollywood. It is one of the few instances where a small corner stall, with one bright naked light-bulb, walls plastered by garish pictures of the current Bollywood heartthrob, trumps the most elegant and sophisticated of dinning restaurants, where Armani clad men with their French chiffon sareed companions jostle with the hoi-polloi of India.

A poet from Bengal, Mukhya Charan Bhattacharya, lauded the paan:

She lives indoors but is not a woman
Not sought by the young but adored by the old
She is a temptress like a fire-fly
Fools will not interpret this and will remain confused

Soft, discreet, delicate yet alluring.

Depending on where you are, you may need to know the etiquette of both eating and serving: If a paan leaf is eaten with its stalk, it will bring sorrow. Chewing it with the mid-vein, could lose your head. Bite and throw away the tip of the leaf or else you may be committing a grave sin. Never consume a dry leaf as it curtails your life span. One cannot eat a paan every day as that is tantamount to committing a sin because the paan is one of the best offerings for the Gods. A paan is never used in a sacrificial fire. Mythology has even numbered the exact leaves each God prefers: Vishnu, for example, has exactly 32 leaves, not one more or less. And obviously, no one wishes to annoys the Gods, so care is taken that each leaf is clean, moist, stem less and without a tear.

For lesser mortals, the heart-shaped leaf symbolizes love at its best. When a marriage is finalized in Bengal, the families of the bride and groom exchange decorated brass containers topped with paan leaves and condiments as a goodwill gesture, a commitment to an everlasting bond. And as love grows and matures, the woman ends up not only seasoning the paan but feeding it to her man by hand.

In Lucknow (North India), paan eating is an elaborate cultural custom, a ritual of the utmost sophistication with their own ways of making, storing and serving a paan. Voracious paan eaters do not swallow; instead they chew, enjoy its flavors, and then spit it out.

Philippines: Paan has been part of the culture in the Philippines. Called tepak sirih or nga-nga (literally "to chew/gnaw"). Nowadays, it is mostly popular with the older populations.

Myanmar: Called Kun-ya, it has a very long tradition being consumed by both men and women in all strata of society. Depending on who one asks, leaves and ingredients from different parts of the country are favored the connoisseurs. Burmese history also mentions an ancient custom of a condemned enemy asking for 'a paan and a drink of water' before being executed.

Pakistan: The consumption of paan has been a very popular cultural tradition throughout Pakistan, with both home-grown and imported ingredients. It is estimated that an average Pakistani consumes up to 7-8 paans a day.

Cambodia: Originally a Khmer culture, cultivation of Areca nut palm and betel leaves continues in rural areas of Cambodia. However, young people do not chew as much as their older generation.

Vietnam: In Vietnam the areca nut and the betel leaf are such important symbols of love and marriage that in Vietnamese the phrase "matters of betel and areca" is synonymous with marriage. Areca nut chewing starts the talk between the groom's parents and the bride's parents about the young couple's marriage, therefore the leaves and juices are used ceremonially in Vietnamese weddings. The folk tale explaining the origin of this Vietnamese tradition is a good illustration of the belief that the combination of areca nut and the betel leaf is ideal to the point that they are practically inseparable, like an idealized married couple.

Health Benefits
Detailed research has proved that the leaf is high on hydroxychavicol which has anti-platelet and anti-inflammatory properties, thus has the potential to prevent and treat those heart diseases where platelets and inflammation have been indicated. Chewing one betel leaf a day without tobacco or lime is considered beneficial.

The leaf contains vitamin C, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and carotene. It is also a good source of calcium. Studies have found that betel leaves contain an essential oil that supplies phenol to the bloodstream which has potential antiseptic properties.

Research reveals that the betel leaf prevents degeneration of cells: Some leaves have immense potential in preventing cellular damage, and that the leaf has the ability to forage free radicals. Chewing the leaves of the herb, while increasing the flow of saliva, also protects against intestinal parasites. Many studies have even revealed the anti-oxidant properties of the leaf.

Other than its curative properties, the leaf is a natural anti-depressant and stress-reliever. Classical singers often chew on betel leaf to relax after strenuous performances.

The World Healt Organisation states that chewing betel quids and areca nut is carcinogenic to humans. A recent study found that areca-nut paan even without tobacco increased oral cancer risk many times.

One reason that paan acceptance and consumption is less than before is due to the social stigma of the red-mouth of a paan chewer. Scientific research is underway to offer the health properties in other forms such as a paan flavored drink.

Kitchen remedies: There are many unsubstantiated “kitchen remedies”:
· Local application of betel leaves cures orchitis and arthritis
· Betel leaves soaked in mustard oil, slightly warmed and applied on the chest relieve cough and breathing difficulty in children
· A hot poultice of betel leaves or juice mixed with refined coconut oil when applied on the loins benefits lower back pain
· Local application relieves sore throat
· Juice of betel leaves dropped in the ear relieves ear aches
· Betel leaves have diuretic properties. Their juice mixed with diluted milk and sweetened slightly eases urination
· Betel leaves effectively treat wounds. Grind the leaves, extract the juice, apply on the wound, wrap a betel leaf and bandage the wound
· Betel leaves treat boils too. Just warm a leaf till it becomes soft, coat a layer with castor oil on it, spread it over the inflamed area and repeat it every few hours for best results.

But why the intellectual study? After a good meal, go to your local paan-whallah and ask for your favorite. Mine? Calcutta leaf (kulkatta patta), sweet (mitha), peppermint, sweet aroma (khusboo) with no hard beetle-nut and no silver leaf (varak). Two please. Thank you for asking!