My Fascination with the Once “Exotic” World of Paan

BY SHARIFFA KESHAVJEE
(Special to Simerg)

Paan Leaves. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Paan Leaves. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Introduction

Paan, commonly known as betel leaf is an evergreen and perennial creeper, with glossy heart-shaped leaves. The betel plant originated from India and South East Asia. The leaf is mostly consumed in Asia, and elsewhere in the world by some Asian immigrants as paan.

Paan Vine. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Paan Vine – common in homes of Indian families in East Africa. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Amongst the South Asian communities in East Africa and Madagascar, the vine can be found in some homes all along the staircase, and at the foot of staircases. In more luxurious homes, a paan vine would surely be creeping along the first available wall. It might not be as exotic as the jasmine and the champeli, but it is a vital inhabitant for an Indian home.

The CHE ni Boli and Breaking the Code

In 1955 when I was young and curious to find out what happened around me, I was ready to enter the world of the adult. Paan eating and speaking in secret languages was one of those secret avenues.

Paan eating in the 1950’s was the domain of the adult. So when the older siblings were ready to go off into town to have a paan, they would say “CHE pa CHE ne,”  so that us, the young ones, could not decipher the word as it was broken up by CHE. This language was called CHE ni Boli, the secret language of CHE.

Paan Encryption in the 1950's. Image: Adapted from Wikipedia.

Paan Encryption in the 1950’s. Image: Adapted from Wikipedia.

How fascinating! And it was spoken so fast that it took a very long time to break the code. But once you had broken the code, voila, you had crossed  the boundary and you were in the august realms of the adult!

Now it was our opportunity to dominate. We were in the sacred space of an unknown language and at every opportunity we would flout this power of the word that had put us into the heights of the supreme. What a world of power we had entered. The tight doors of entry had been broken.

So What Was It About Paan?

In the days of yore, paan was a delicacy for the rich. At the dinner events in the Raaj, after dinner, paan was passed around.

Ghiyas-ud-din Khalji, the Sultan of Mandu (r. 1469–1500), watches as tender betel leaves of the finest quality are spread out and rosewater is sprinkled on them, while saffron is also added. An elaborate betel chew or paan would contain fragrant spices and rose preserves with chopped areca nuts, folio from 16th century cookbook, Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi. Photo: Wikipedia.

Ghiyas-ud-din Khalji, the Sultan of Mandu (r. 1469–1500), watches as tender betel leaves of the finest quality are spread out and rosewater is sprinkled on them, while saffron is also added. An elaborate betel chew or paan would contain fragrant spices and rose preserves with chopped areca nuts, folio from 16th century cookbook, Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi. Photo: Wikipedia.

Now this was no ordinary paan. In the leaf were ensconced many a treasures. One was a red paste for the sweet paan and a white paste for the paan with a tang given by lime paste. Then there was sesame seeds, fennel seeds, roasted to perfection, grated coconut and often a split cardamom.

Here comes another hierarchy.

Young people had a baby paan with nothing in it but some sweet paste and coconut, and occasionally some sesame seeds, called tal.

Farouk Panwalla preparing a sweet paan with a red paste. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Farouk Panwalla preparing a sweet paan with a red paste. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Farouk Panwalla with all the Paan ingredients before the leaf is folded. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee

Farouk Panwalla with all the Paan ingredients before the leaf is folded. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee

Of course there were other more potent paans, which can have tobacco and other so called uplifting but damaging items.

The adults had a paan with a tang, the white paste was a chuno that gave it a tang. Not only that but the paan had sopari, a nut of a palm tree. Also called a beetle nut, the sopari is a very hard nut that requires a very special cutter called suri. There are many varieties of suris. Exotic gold ones with a jangle, silver ones in all shapes and sizes and bronze ones too.

A collection of Suris, which are used to break the sopari into smaller sizes. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee

Farida Nanji’s collection of suris from India and Pakistan. Suris are used to break the sopari into smaller bits.  Photo: Farida Nanji Collection.

Soon the paan traveled from the courts of Raja to plebs and peasants.

So the well to do middle class family would have a paandania silver salver that held paan.

Paandani. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee

A Paandani. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee

Paandanis from the collection of the Tayab Jeevanjee family. They date back to the time when making paan at home was an event after dinner, which was presided over by the man of the house. Photo: Tayab Jeevanjee family.

Paandanis from the collection of the Tayab Jeevanjee family. They date back to the time when making paan at home was an event after dinner, which was presided over by the man of the house. Photo: Tayab Jeevanjee family.

 

Paandani

Paandani silver holders

Inside the paandani were silver holders, one with paste, sopari, simsim, saunf,and daal, with aromatic leaves and coconut. Needless to say the up keep of the paandani was up to the woman. She ensured that the silver was polished, the sopari was cut, and the sim sim roasted.

The head of the family had the privilege of making the paan. It was only made after dinner, it was not chewed at lunch!

The first paan would go to the head of the family and then would come the sons and mother and daughters in law and then the children with their baby paans.

What a ritual it was!

Paan Goes Commercial  from India to Africa

Paan shops mushroomed along side eating houses.

In Kisumu where I was born, I recollect a paan shop called “Rambharos Paanghar,” meaning a paan shop trusting in God.

There were many other items on sale at a paan shop, soft drinks advertised as ‘soda’ ice creams, chocolates and sweets. The die-hard paan eaters would stop at the paan shop for a chat and local gossip.

Farouk Paanwalla with complete paan. "I do not count how many paans  I make  It is my life." Photo: Farida Keshavjee

Farouk Paanwalla with a complete paan. He says, “I do not count how many paans I make
It is my life.” Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

My favourite memory is of riding in the car of an avid paan eater. He would come to a traffic light stop on Salim Road. This is the main road in Mombasa. As he stopped, the paanwalla, would come out and hand him a packet. This was an evening ritual. The paan packet contained enough paan to last till the next evening.

In Mombasa, paan shops were usually neighbours of places where we could purchase coconut water and crisps. Usually an open barbecue area had a paan shop close by. It was customary to eat paan after a meal. A popular place for paan today is the Diamond Plaza which has Indian shops and restaurants as well as at least five paan shops. Hashmi’s, a very popular chicken tikka place, also has a ‘Paan Corner’. This particular one is set up with a little fountain where paan leaves float and everything is clean and cheerful.

Sopari cutters sit outside the paan shop totally engrossed in cutting soparis with a commercial sopari cutters. Photo: Farida Keshavjee.

Sopari cutters sit outside a paan shop totally engrossed in cutting soparis with commercial sopari cutters. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Paan with sugar syrup, dedicated coconut, sopari, sari sopari, variari, tal and roasted dar,  all ready to pop into the mouth. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Paan with sugar syrup, desiccated coconut, sopari, sari sopari, variari, tal
and roasted dar, all ready to pop into the mouth. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

The journey of the paan chewing fascinates me. The once exotic ritual practiced in the palaces of the maharajas went domestic. Then from domestic ritual to the commercial. Paan shops and stands are everywhere, in  India, of course,  but follow the Indian diaspora all over the world. Whereas at one time the paanwalla was an Indian, with the art of making paan going from father to son, today we find many local people making paan too.

My children eat paan, will our grand children? I wonder.

Date posted: Friday, January 30, 2015.
Last updated: Tuesday, February 3, 2015.

Copyright: Shariffa Keshavjee. 2015.

___________________

Shariffa Keshavjee - empowers women in the East African nation of KenyaAbout the writer: Shariffa Keshavjee is  a philanthropist and an entrepreneur with an objective to help women empower themselves. Raised in Kisumu, she considers herself a “pakaa” Kenyan. She is now based in the nation’s capital, Nairobi. Her other interest is in visual arts where she delights in painting on wood, silk  and porcelain using water colours, oils and acrylics. She also likes writing, especially for children, and bird watching.

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Links to a selection of articles by Shariffa Keshavjee on simerg and simergphotos:

  1. Bagamoyo’s Historic Ismaili Jamatkhana Through Pictures, Poetry and Prose
  2. Inferno of Alamut
  3. The Jamatkhana in Toronto — “A Seed of Faith Planted…” by Shariffa Keshavjee

18 thoughts on “My Fascination with the Once “Exotic” World of Paan

  1. Thank you for all your comments. My grand children do eat paan occasionally. I wanted to capture my memories of Kenya. I love preserving stories. Dedicated not to the paan!!! But so that the memories do not desiccate!!
    Shariffa

  2. Brings back memories of paan eating in Uganda and waiting for my fua to give me some of his supari freshly cut with his suri. My great grandmother brought her paandaani to England and had a hidden compartment for tambaku(tobacco). Us kids had managed to decode the Che language but we never mentioned that to the adults; all the while they thought they were communiating in private we knew what they were saying!Thank you Shariffa for returing those sweet memories.

  3. Beautiful, wonderful, super. Thank you for this article. Brought back many memories of the time when I too together with my siblings, used to listen to our parents talking the Che language. It was a mysterious world.
    On the subject of Pan or Paan – I was not allowed to eat for medical reasons. I remember my grandfather – Issa Hirji of Mombasa having a box of paan making pheranphilia not only at home but also accompanying him wherever he went. After dinner everyone had to have paan! Oh happy memories. Thank you for bringing them back to us. And I still have a suri!

  4. Thank you Mrs Keshavjee – indeed down memory lane! Kadiri was the favourite in Mombasa – miss the friendly and happy community of Mombasa.

  5. Dear Shariffa

    I enjoyed your article on ‘Paan’ Bhuli bisri yaad. Our Paanwalla was in Madaraka in Mombasa. Madaraka is a place where many significant rallies took place. The election of people on to Legislative Council. For example Count Kassamali Paroo, Dr.Rana, Lawali of the Coast.

    Madaraka was a popular place for us in the fifties.Then there was Jafferpanwalla; he was an Ismaili. His Paan shop was in Kuze. As we left the Kuze Jamatkhana and walked up to the Meghji Dossa Shop, past the Perfume shop, we came to Jaffer Paanwalla. The word Nargis Kapuri came into coinage because of the fame of Raj Kapoor and Nargis as the Bollywood stars.

    In the centre of the city in Mombasa was Kadiri. Kadiri was our local corner shop, and we could stop there for Paan, cold drinks, chocolates and Madaf served cold.

    Zeenat Janmohamed

  6. What a joy to read this article about the art and history of paan making! The wonderful illustrations of tools, implements and silver Paandani all emphasize the significance of this time-honoured ritual.

    Note of Caution: Betel nut is regarded as a mild stimulant and digestive aid. Intake of betel nut may result in drug interactions with medications, such as Wafarin, which some heart patients may be on.

  7. Aha the good old Paan! It sued to be fun to go to the small Kiosk (where only the paan maker could fit) on the corner of River Road in Nairobi to get a real BEAUTY!

    I really miss the good old days and my favourite city NAIROBI.

  8. Never thought paan would make such an interesting read, let alone being worthy of literature. Found it quite interesting and yearning for paan.

  9. Pingback: Zahra's Blog

  10. Shariffa,

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your wonderful and splendid piece on paan, congratulation. It brought back many memories and here in our small village, a no-paan-zone in Australia, I salivated as I read and recalled it all. Pan, no not paan, yes pan, but, I was trying to decipher who the paan in the photo with this caption had the coconut dedicated to? ‘Paan with sugar syrup, dedicated coconut,’ Not only ‘enjoyed’ this paan, but also the laughter, Mr. Editor. Certainly the two letters D & C on the keyboard need some separation. Never mind, hakuna matata, I loved it.
    Kersi Rustomji.

    • A coconut dedicated to a Paan? Yes, Kersi, how funny and I laughed too. Should it not be desiccated coconut? The “c” that you mention wouldn’t work entirely! The s, c and d are not far apart on keyboard! My error, minor, compared to what you sometimes see in some of the world’s best news media! At least Kersi there is someone looking at the captions and not just the photos.

      Thank you!

  11. Thank you Shariffa for being inquisitive about one of the oldest traditions. I never really gave it a thought to it…! It was always a treat for us to go and have paan after dinner whilst visiting family in Uganda.

  12. Paan, including the type without tobacco that kids eat, has an extremely high direct risk of causing mouth cancer due to the betel quid ingredient. The Aga Khan University is doing some fantastic research into relation between paan and Asia’s soaring oral cancer rate that can be available by Googling ‘paan’ ‘Aga Khan University’ and ‘cancer’. This above article is great to know about the culture and tradition of paan eating, however access to knowledge of health risks is critical.

  13. Well done Shariffa. Lovely trip down memory lane. Also enjoyed learning about the
    “suris” and beautiful ” paandanis”.

    Many of us still enjoy our paan in Vancouver whenever we can – in fact even those born in here and our Canadian friends have acquired a taste for it !!

    However, my sympathies for those of us who cannot tolerate paan or java dana. Perhaps a mint or two may finish a meal off nicely for them.

  14. Sorry to contradict Farin as I get an ulster whenever I venture to eat a paan. A few years ago in Birmingham on social occasions like a Jamati meal for any of the Festivals they ended it with a paan! Now they do with what they call ‘java dana’ both my enemies as the latter gets into my crowned teeth at my ripe age and I pray they don’t distribute such items ever again.

    However, the writer of this article, Shariffa, has done a splendid job of it. I wonder if it makes much sense to our brethren from outside the Indo-Pak regions!

  15. I enjoyed reading this as it brought back many memories for me. I love paan and whenever I am in Nairobi, I make a point to stop at DP for some. Thanks for rekindling my love with paan. I think I may make a trip to Stratford Road soon.

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