10:01pm

Mon August 15, 2011
Asia

Chew On This: Indians Trading Betel For Tobacco

For centuries, Indians have chewed betel leaves, or paan, regardless of caste or economic lines. It's been the daily chew of everyone from the poorest farmer and rickshaw puller to the richest maharaja and gold merchant.

A plump little bundle of flavor, paan consists of various spices and sweeteners, spread on a betel leaf and folded into a neat packet.

But the leaf and the traditional ritual of preparing it are rapidly giving way to an even more dangerous habit: chewing tobacco.

Betel leaves are believed to be good for digestion, so paan is often served to guests after a nice meal in a home or restaurant. For long-term users, it leaves behind a telltale sign: red-stained teeth and lips.

Depending on where they're grown, betel leaves have a distinctive flavor and texture, and connoisseurs debate which are the best, just like fine wines.

Dulal Bera is a paan leaf broker in Chandni Chowk, the vast market in New Delhi's Old City.

He says India has more than 30 varieties of betel, but the best are grown in the states of West Bengal and Orissa. That puts him at odds with dealers just across the street, who swear that paan from the area around the holy city of Varanasi, is the best.

Business Is Hurting

Bera fans out a stack of pale, heart-shaped leaves that have come to his shop packed in wet straw to keep them fresh.

He says his family has been in the paan business at this location for some 60 years, but the business is dwindling.

He blames competition from gutka, a type of paan mixed with chewing tobacco that is cheap and sold in single-serving pouches in small shops everywhere.

Richard Mahapatra, a journalist who has studied the paan market, says there are cultural changes in India that have led people to prefer tobacco over paan.

For one thing, he says, people are coming to prefer fast foods over more traditional fare, and paan preparation is not fast.

"If you really want to spread a good paan," he says, "it will take at least 10 minutes, but the chewing tobacco comes ready-made."

Paan is also more expensive than tobacco — about 45 cents for a basic sweet paan — versus less than a penny for a dose of gutka.

As well, says Mahapatra, a senior reporter at the environmental magazine Down To Earth, paan has another disadvantage — the staining, which modern Indians try to avoid.

That's not the case with Jitender Verma, a paan wallah, or maker, in old Delhi.

Verma's mouth is a scarlet gash, and his fingers are stained red as well. He says he has been part of his family business for 40 years.

Many Different Recipes

He describes the steps that go into making up a simple paan, beginning by spreading the betel leaf with lime paste, then adding a chutney for flavoring.

Then, chunks of roasted betel nut and sweet condiments are sprinkled on top of the mix, and the leaf is folded into a neat triangle and secured with a toothpick.

The result is a sweet, extremely juicy chew that lasts a good 30 minutes.

There's almost always a line outside a good paan stall, where customers watch as the maestro prepares each treat.

The lines are shorter than they used to be, though, and the competition is everywhere.

Just down the street from Verma's stall, a street vendor displays long strips of mass-produced pouches of chewing tobacco; empty packets litter the street.

India's government is considering whether to ban chewing tobacco as a public health hazard. But even if the ban goes through, it's not clear whether that will revive the tradition of chewing paan.

Paan is often made with the ground areca nut, which like tobacco is considered carcinogenic.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.