The Death of Paan

How the tricornered treat, once a cornerstone of South Asian life and art, has slipped to the periphery.

GettyImages-1238546149 paan
Meetha paan, made of betel leaves filled with tutti-frutti, cherries, dates, betel (areca) nut, slaked lime (chuna; calcium hydroxide) in Little India, Phahurat Market, Bangkok, Thailand (Paul Lakatos/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Mehr Singh


April 6, 2023


10 min

The word paan — the betel nut and leaf concoction that is not quite a dessert or a snack — brings to mind a verb, the accompanying act of chewing it. Across South Asia, paan evokes a shared activity, rather than an object: at weddings, places of worship, and in roadside stalls from which packets of supari (areca nut) hang like a beaded curtain. Paan has inspired songs (“Khaike Paan Banaraswala”), vivid scenes in award-winning novels such as Midnight’s Children, and even lovers in the Kama Sutra.

Paan shops usually have some version of hand-painted lettering on nearby walls that reads, “yahaan thukna mana hai” or “spitting is not allowed.” Many respond to such messaging with an artistic, if unrelenting, defiance, leading to constellations of red-hued spit-splatter, produced by the chemical reaction between areca, slaked lime, and saliva almost everywhere in the vicinity. 

Whether you are hankering for supari, sada (plain), meetha (sweet), or even chocolate or butterscotch, there’s a paan for you. But the herbaceous treat, once a fixture of hospitality and one of the oldest-recorded practices across the subcontinent and the world, has slipped to the periphery. Some Gen Zers today have never had paan, and even question whether it is drugs. Still, those familiar with it can’t help but pine for it.

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