Even if you are not a paan connoisseur, you must have heard words such as Sanchi patta, katha, choona, saunf, supari or chhaliya. The word tambaku (tobacco) was also added to my meagre paan vocabulary when the paanwallah mixed up an order and handed my mother a paan filled with tobacco instead of giving her the regular saada khushboo she wanted.
Paan, used as a mouth freshener as well as for a bit of mild intoxication, courtesy the tambaku, today carries various concoctions inside the folds of the betel leaf.
Yes, the katha (catechu mixed with water to make a paste), choona (crushed limestone power), saunf (fennel seeds), supari or chhaliya (diced areca nut) are still around but there are many more ingredients that make up the modern paan.
What goes inside a paan? Here is a list to help you chew it well
Let’s begin with the betel leaf. The most sought-after here happens to be the big heart-shaped Sanchi patta (leaf). It can be grown here as well. Still, no paan shopkeeper would admit that the leaves he uses have been grown locally. “They are imported from Bangladesh,” they announce.
When prodded about it growing here as well, you are promptly informed that it is just not the same thing because the flavour cannot be matched with the imported leaf. Thus you have stacks of Sanchi patta soaked in stainless steel buckets full of water under the paanwallah’s counter. You can also store the betel leaves by wrapping them in moist muslin cloth, one is told.
Broadly speaking, four types of paan are sold in Karachi — Meetha (sweet), sada khushboo, Raja Sahib and tambaku. All paans have the choona and katha as the base followed by whatever else you want in it.
Then the meetha paan may also have sweetened grated coconut or khopra, a sweet brownish qiwam or paste, which looks a bit like semolina halwa but is called Lazeez. There are a variety of other qiwam for paan available here.
The paanwallah may also add a mint-flavour creamy white or red ingredient to it which is simply known as ‘cream’ but which looks a bit like vapour rub. Shaan, a colourless sweet liquid or kranti, a coffee-coloured liquid, which gives off a sweet aroma may also be added along with tiny silver balls (khushboo) for added aroma. Supari and chhaliya are another addition along with a cardamom and a pinch of Rasna powder, an Indian product with minty flavour as well as aroma.
The khopra going into the paan also has food colour giving it a yellow or red colour. It also has sugar and glucose added. But for diabetics, there is also the plain variety available. Their paan will just have mint, saunf, supari and cardamom. If they like khopra, they can have plain kind without the glucose, sugar and food colours.
The sada khushboo paan will have all these save the sweetened khopra. The Raja Sahib paan — it’s not clear which particular prince this is named after — too leans more towards the fragrance rather than sweetness. But it can have more varieties of supari such as the Sunny supari that is a Raja Sahib must along with these red colour things that resemble electronic components but are actually sugar-coated supari known as Anmol.
Many people prefer a bit less of one ingredient and maybe a little more of another to come up with their unique designer paan. Your regular paanwallah would always know what you like or don’t like in your paan and make it for you without your having to remind him again and again.
This brings us to the tambaku or tobacco paan. That’s where the paan also becomes complicated because every tobacco has its own unique taste and fragrance. Thus, we have Raja Jani, Shahzadi, Azizee, Najma, Zahoor, Baba, Johnny Walker, Lighthouse, 800, Muradabadi, 120, Mumtaz, Lal Tambaku and Ratna tobacco, the last two of which happen to be imported from India. A paan with several kinds of tambaku is known as a mix-patti.
These days you also get to see many fancy paans moving away from tradition for they may have fresh pineapple pieces inside or they may be dipped in chocolate to coat and seal up the leaf with the other ingredients inside besides adding to the taste. Some may also be topped with a cherry. They call these fusion paans. Besides the new fancy look and flavours these also carry fancy prices, though purists will scoff at labeling them paans.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 27th, 2016