You may be relieved to know that the red stuff people spit all over the streets isn’t blood, but juice produced by chewing paan – a digestive, commonly taken after meals, and also a mild stimulant, found especially in the northeast, where it is fresh and much stronger.

Paan consists of chopped or shredded nut (always referred to as betel nut, though in fact it comes from the areca palm), wrapped in a leaf (which does come from the betel vine) that is first prepared with ingredients such as katha (a red paste), chuna (slaked white lime), mitha masala (a mix of sweet spices, which can be ingested) and zarda (chewing tobacco, not to be swallowed on any account, especially if made with chuna). The triangular package thus formed is wedged inside your cheek and chewed slowly. In the case of chuna and zarda paans, you should spit out the juice as you go.

Paan, and paan masala, a mix of betel nut, fennel seeds, sweets and flavourings, are sold by paan-wallahs, often from tiny stalls squeezed between shops. Paan-wallahs develop big reputations; those in the tiny roads of Varanasi are the most renowned, asking astronomical prices for paan made to elaborate specifications including silver and even gold foil. Paan is an acquired taste; novices should start off, and preferably stick with, the sweet and harmless mitha variety, which is perfectly all right to ingest.


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