By Madhulika Dash
If there was ever a contest to select the most popular relish in India, there is a good chance that Paan would emerge as the invincible winner – not only because of its ancestry (its use dates back to 400BC) but also in the variety (there are over 200 different ways of making paan, and about 50 ways of eating it –tambul being one of the most ancient) and its multiple uses.
Yes, you heard that right. Paan isn't just a favourite chew that is had across India, but a go-to miracle leaf that can treat everything from cold, to bad breathe and even built immunity.
And yet the rise of Paan's popularity has little to do with its health properties and more to do with the celebrity (read: royal) endorsement that paan and its other brother (beetle nut) has earned over the years.
Sample this: Tambul, a traditional chew in North East, was reinvented in the court of Nur Jahan, who is said to have introduced paan to royalty and made it a post meal-essential. Far from the half of single heart shaped leaf with few slivers of heady tambul (beetle nut), the one offered on the royal platter was made with eleven leaves with beetle nut that boiled in sandalwood juice and lime (made by mixing lime with saffron and rose water). Called the bira, it made it to the harem's must-learn list, and often had a different budget allotted to its procurement and making. In Fatehpur Sikri, next to the areas specially dedicated to ice and storage of red rose (another favourite of Mughal Empresses) is actually a room where all the paans were stored and worked upon.
Such was the royal fascination with the heart shaped leaf that generations from Nur Jahan and other new kings and Nawabs took it as a rent and tax instead of money or grains, especially from the Eastern part of the country and Varanasi, that was where one could get the finest, melt-in- your-mouth Magai.
Old tales have it that Mumtaz Mahal loved her Jagannath so much that half of the tax from Bengal would go as paan to the palace of Shah Jahan's favourite queen. In fact, Mughal period, paan was given as land revenue by the Mahoba estate of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh
Interestingly however while Paan may have gained its share in the limelight with Mughals and then Nawabs later on (It is said that among the retinue selected by Wajid Ali Shah before going to exile was a chef and a paan specialist), and some of the meetha and zarda paan may have been designed during the time, they weren't the first to introduce paan into the Indian culture.
The use of Paan dates to as early as 400 BC. Back then paan wasn't just a way to treat illnesses especially that of stomach and lungs (it is called the miracle cleanser in Sushruta Samhitas and the perfect digestive in Kashyapa Bhojanakalpa), paan became an indulgence between 75 AD and 300 AD – at least in middle India. North East still used it to keep hunger at bay!
European traveller Marco Polo was among the first to record betel chewing among kings and nobles in India back in the 13 th century. "It is 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," said Polo to one of his friend as he introduced the luxurious chew in European society, and turned it into a major revenue earner. Back in the mid-1600, it was one of the most expensive exports to the Dutch.
Paan eating by then had become a ritual – much like hookahs and other- and special time was dedicated to enjoy this relish, often post dinner. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that India's best export to the Persian court. But where did the Paan journey begin?
Some believe that Paan came to India from Malaysia, while others say it was a leaf discovered by the Vedic gurus, who prepared the first Tambula. A Sanskrit word derived from tamra meaning copper indicating red colour. The first iteration of paan was simply paan, supari and catechu or katha, which according to Sushrata, was given as an alternative to keep the mouth clean strengthens the voice, tongue and teeth and guards against diseases. And purify blood.
It was a delicious way of treating patient, and it was this deliciousness that made it such a hit with the army as well, who was administered a dose of paan to recover from the vagaries of the battle.