Throughout India and Southeast Asia, betel nut is chewed by a large number of people for its mildly stimulant effect. Unlike most other countries in which betel is traditionally chewed on its own, in India it's mixed with spices and sweet paste, then wrapped in a fresh betel leaf. The finished product is known as paan.
The word originates from the Sanskrit parna, meaning "feather"—a reference to the shape of the betel leaf that the mixture is wrapped in before being slowly chewed. It's incredibly popular in India and is the first thing Gregory David Roberts, author of the best-selling novel (and backpackers' favourite) Shantaram, eats when he arrives in Mumbai, on the run from the law.
Paan is traditionally offered after a meal to freshen the breath and sharpen up, and in Southall, West London's little India, there are a number of small stalls along the high street that specialise in it. It's super-cheap at £1 (about $1.50) per wrap, and can be bought almost anytime of the day or night.
Until recently, Southall was also the go-to place in London for another herbal stimulant—khat. Popular among the Somali community, khat was banned by the British government earlier this year. Betel, however, is viewed as slightly more benign, and there are no plans in the UK to prohibit its chewing.
Although paan is part of Indian culture and tradition, there is an antisocial side to it that has provoked action from the local council. When chewing paan, you produce much more saliva than usual, prompting you to spit regularly. As a result, Ealing council has introduced an £80 (about $125) fine for anyone caught spitting on the streets of Southall.
I approached Rita's Pan Centre on Regina Road in Southall to see paan being prepared and also have a chew on it myself.
Muhammed, a worker there, took me through the steps of preparing the betel. "Paan is incredibly popular in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I have paan after I've eaten a very big meal—that's when it's best," he said. "It's really good for the digestive system."
There are two types of paan—one with betel nut and one without—but you're still consuming betel even if you opt for the no-nut version, as both are wrapped with betel leaves.
To make the paan, chuna (AKA slaked lime) is first smeared over the betel leaf in order to help it stick together once it is folded up. The betel nut is then added, along with a range of sweets and spices, including coconut, rose paste, cardamom and mukhwas (candied seeds).
While Muhammed made a bulk batch of paan, I hung around outside the paan stand and chatted with some of Rita's regulars as they popped by the stall for their daily fix.
Shanki visits the stand a couple of times a week and talked to me about the narcotic, buzzy side of chewing betel. "You have sweet paan, which we say contains soft ingredients, and then you have paan to get a trip on," he told me, grinning.
Although the paan in the UK still provides a buzz, Shanki claims that it's got nothing on the real thing in back in India and Pakistan. "That hits you directly on the head. Some people who have it for the first time will vomit. I don't eat that one, though, as it's bad for your mouth and stains your teeth," he said.
Paan, and more specifically betel, is renowned for causing damage to the mouth and teeth when used to excess. Heavy betel nut users in India and South East Asia can be spotted a mile away by their stained red teeth. It is also often used in conjunction with tobacco, which increases the rick of mouth cancer.
Another regular, Sunil, explained to me that a lot of people take it simply as a breath freshener—almost like a super-potent after-dinner mint. "I've chewed paan for years. For me it's purely to keep my breath fresh," he said. "When your job involves talking to people every day, you need something to ensure you've always got fresh breath! I chew it in the morning, after lunch, and after dinner, as well."
I was pretty keen to try some paan and see if there were any effects. But, not wanting to break tradition, I first went off to get a bit of food from one of the excellent local restaurants that the area has to offer. Southall is easily the best part of London to eat good authentic North Indian food, even better than the East End's increasingly touristy Brick Lane. After a quick stuffed paratha and masala chai, I returned to the stand and purchased a wrap of paan—with extra betel nut.
I shoved the whole triangular parcel in my mouth, and it was pretty delicious. As I chewed through the soft leaf, my mouth was attacked by sweet and spicy flavours. Even though it has a gritty, messy texture once you start chewing, your palate starts to feel clean and fresh. I wasn't concentrating and ended up swallowing the whole thing. Big mistake—it's supposed to be chewed and then eventually spat out in a purpley-red glop of saliva.
Sadly, I didn't get much of the promised buzz, and I certainly didn't "get a trip on,"' as Shanki mentioned earlier. Perhaps you need to sample it in India to get this kind of sharp, speedy effect. Despite that, paan is still incredibly tasty—which is a buzz in itself. The next time I'm out in Southall to fill up on good Indian food, I'll be stopping by a paan stall to cleanse my spice-fried head.