The diversity of the culture that India lives in is such that occurs as a panoply of uniquities, across pretty much every aspect of her lifestyle. Be it ingrained beliefs and revered rituals or the more tangible expressions of tradition through cuisine and dress to name just a few, ours is a land exotic in many elements of our defining.
An unmistakable assertion of such peculiarity that strikes as somewhat weird but wonderful still in its very desi manner of doing would be the paan chewing habit that encompasses identity as a definite cultural ‘exercise’ indulged in by the entirety of the nation. A way of life and a menace still of existence but inextricably woven into the scape of our collective reality, the chews upon the betel nut and leaf combo is what essentially completes meals in the subcontinent.
Its avenue of attending are as diverse- a mouth freshener generally but not exclusively, chewed on after meals for its digestive as well as stimulating properties, this is a daily phenomenon widely encountered across many regions of Asia. The prevalence though happens to be particularly prominent in India, perhaps taking off on the premise of it being the place of origin, disputed or otherwise, but asserting rather overwhelmingly as an Indian ‘treat’ and in rather justified terms indeed.
Standing then for one such term of justification that testifies the paan as Indian would be a specific variety of it. To be clear though, there does indeed exist many varieties of betel leaf specific to as many parts of the country, so special in fact that two of such identities boast as well of a Geographic Indication tag. But despite this distinction accruing to the Mysore betel leaf and the Tirur betel leaf cultivated in the southern states of Karnataka and Kerala respectively, it would be a certain recognition of global character that would be availed out of a north Indian specialty instead.
That tag of pride rests with the city of Varanasi, of course as that instantly clicking identity of the Banarasi paan. Whether one comes to decipher the status of this significance through an iconic Bollywood number or relies instead on the definite mode of its preparation, the fact of the matter is that Banarasi paan is indeed one of its kind. Unlike the aforementioned couple of distinction though and despite the obvious understanding of it being a preparation of the leaf variant exclusive to the city, the Banarasi alluding is a case not of cultivating but of creating.
That is to say that the fame of Banarasi paan is one derived upon the Indianness of a united diversity. Bihar’s specialty of the Maghai paan is the most popular mode of expression even as Jaunpur’s Desi variant or Odisha’s Jagannathi leaves tends to be much common as well. That said, it would be the ‘art’ rather of skillful preparation that the Banarasi identity presents itself as that dawns this essence of exquisiteness upon it.
And thus resides in this specific striking of
gold the green such experience that makes Banarasi paan standout in its tasting. Characterised by a melt in the mouth texture is this sublime indeed rendition of the paan prospect that does away almost with its chewing attribute. ‘Soft’ enough to be swallowed that therefore evades also the notoriousness of spitting is this carefully curated composition of just the right ingredients in the most perfect proportions. Even the ingredients would be individually prepped up as well so that there ultimately emerges the medley of unique flavors summing up the feel- mouthfeel included, of this trademark offering of the city.
More ‘appealing’ in its generally tobacco free content and building up even greatly on that appeal on account of its availability in different flavors is this paan of greater repute. Even in sporting such versatility though, it would be the sweet version of Banarasi paan that emerges as a favorite. Meetha paan functions almost as dessert of a desi kind and the defining identity of the region thrust upon it certainly does all it takes to elevate further the grounds of its regard.
The exotic flavor of Banarasi paan is worked out from the myriad ingredients of what essentially finds expression upon its milder hued, smoothly felt ‘palate’. Betel nuts and leaves of course are primary and so would be the catechu and the surti that characterise the paan chewing culture in its pan Indian style. Beyond that though, the Banarasi style gets as interesting as it can with the addition of ‘pretty’ ingredients, seemingly sitting not so well within the generally rustic nature of paan chewing even when it itself is an experience more cosmopolitan in availing. With everything from rose petals and gulkand to silver foil or varkh striving to continuously up the ante for Banarasi paan, this serving of refreshment is certainly not any less gastronomic than the culinary grandeur of entire meals themselves.
This glorification though of the ingredients as being exemplary in their own identity to bring upon the preparation that charm of a definite telling would be exaggerated a manner of doing if one does not acknowledge the artistry that goes into perfecting the ingredients themselves. From cutting and soaking the areca nuts to remove their astringency to doing the same with the catechu, albeit in more elaborate a manner of processing, the life saga of every Banarasi paan is one that unfolds as some assertion of the dramatic indeed.
The drama is not just unnecessary fuss over something that can be easily done without. For it is such dedication of filtering the ingredients, particularly the catechu that has Banarasi paan deliver the pleasant flavor that it is known for. Even the lime used in this preparation is meticulously processed so that the heat of its naturally occurring is cut out. The surti is also washed thoroughly before it is combined with spices like small cardamom and peppermint. Other components of the Banarasi paan would be ‘sweet treats’ themselves of sugary cherries and roasted scrapped coconut and sugar balls or even tutti fruitti that explains indeed the ‘gourmet’ nature therefore of such serving. The proverbial cherry on the top also assumes a literal interpretation when it comes to the ultimate indulgent experience that this style of the paan chewing is famed in its deliverance.
Once the proportion of the carefully refined ingredients is accurately measured as well, the art expands to account for the packing of them all as an offering of irresistible taste. The aromatic mix of diverse composition is skillfully layered on top of the leaf which is then folded and wrapped in specific specials of technique to assume an as well proportioned triangular shape and form. Decked up then in garnishes of silver warq and secured with cherry mounted toothpicks are every pieces of the Banarasi paan that of course is meant to be savoured freshly served, with the aroma of it anyway making it difficult to save the treat for later.
This freshness is one of the main reasons that has led Banarasi paan to achieve such zenith of glory that the generic forms of its preparation do not so much entail. This also is why the exquisiteness of this style of preparing does not just taste the same even when the brand name of its making persists as well in other cities of the country. As a region that has perfected the art of processing and prepping the ordinary betel leaf to impeccability, Banaras has very deserved earned for itself such repute of distinction that it stands up to as proudly as well.
Such distinguishedness in which Banarasi paan finds favor is validating also of paan chewing being not just a refreshment of sorts. It also is a greater assertion of the cultural quotient that the whole of India lives in, as something essential to our identity. This identity itself is a holistic expression, in that paan is also considered auspicious enough to find itself as part of an offering to the Gods. It also is cultural in a way that denotes not only the lifestyle and habits of our people. Offering paan is esteemed also a show of respect as it is a tradition in welcoming guests and extending invitations as well and what better than the sprinkles of specialness that Banaras has made part of its character in paan preparing to express and experience this uniting flavour of our diverse nation?
Celebrating then the pan Indian phenomenon of paan chews, without its associated marring indeed of the spits and stains could be well explored along the route of its traversing the holy city of Banaras. And with an assortment of flavors to choose from as well, the paandani holding within itself the myriad tastes of a city that is one of the oldest in the world is guaranteed to be uniquely refreshing as well.
The sada paan and the meetha paan would rule as classics, even as you lend yourself to soaking in the juices of the dry fruit special Panchmeva paan or the rich flavor of its kesar variant and the as exotic as possible preparations of the Navrattan paan and the Rajratan paan and hold your breath, even a sweet and sour tasting Amavat paan for a chewing spree that spews deliciousness in its every bite. Trust Banaras then to be so doting on its specialness that even has it dishing out that undoubtable love through the as Indian as it can get dose of sweetness delivered through the malai version of the paan as an interpretation of the paan gilori preparation!