Betel Leaf – green or red?


Update for week ended 15 October 2010

Paan supari are an integral part of the Indian food and culture. It is the most common item eaten as an after-meal appetizer across cultures – north, east, south or west Indian and even across religions. Modern day urbanites, though, have been seen hover around the “paanwala” outside fancy restaurants after an elaborate or expensive dinner, but this is more of a fad, rather than the norm. But this leaf that grows on a vine, and reportedly has no flowers and that is perhaps where the vine got its name – paan, vetri-illai, meaning only leaf. And every state or region has a favourite that they cultivate and savour. So if the highly fragrant, but spicy dark leaf in Bengal is popularly called Calcutta, the melt in your mouth yellowish leaf of the Gangetic city of Varanasi, Maghai. The Tirur vethalai – is so strongly spicy that it is eaten by those who have strong tastes, like the tobacco chewer. Those with milder tastes prefer the Salem variety, and Maharashtrians swear by the Nagarvel. But this tradition of betel leaf eating is not restricted to India, but is still prevalent in eastern nations like Burma, Malaysia (where the older generation still chews it, though has faded away from the present). And the exchange of the betel leaf (usually pairs of the leaves with the betel nut, supari) is a common South Indian tradition during the autumnal Navaratri. And of-course, the blood red stains of the chewed leaves cannot be explained, as the leaves and the calcium, and betel nuts compound with oral fluids, concocts the deepest red that in olden times would be the organic lipstick for women and the fragrant leaf would also freshen your breath. I know it is untrue, but some myths suggest that a locality in Bombay got its name by the red walls and pavements, as the “natives” would spit out red.

The D Street Boyz also savoured their betel leaves during the week, as they got into the heady mood of the fragrant leaves that dissolved into their mouths, as they took their SENSEX to dizzying heights of over 20800, but thereafter as the week proceeded, the red stains trickled down the sides of their moth, and as the D Boyz could not hold back for long, they spat out the red on Friday to take the SENSEX down to 20125. The foreigners who have been thronging D street lately are also intrigued by the unusual Indian behaviour and don’t know what to make of it – so just stood by to watch the action.

There is a tale I heard once, of a foreigner visiting India for the first time and curious to know what caused green leaves to cause people to “bleed” in their mouths. So he courageously went to the “paanwala” and ordered one, under his interpreter’s guidance and translation. Convinced that the culprit was the condiments that went into the leaf were, he quickly emptied them into the  wastebasket and devoured the solo leaf, amidst protests from the paanwala and the interpreter. The sting he got onto his palate was enough to get him to spit out his mouth’s contents and also know why the mouth “bled” on eating this. I am not sure he tried it again.

I am sure all of you must have enjoyed the Commonwealth Games, and Navaratri. Have a nice week ahead. Cheers…

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3 thoughts on “Betel Leaf – green or red?

  1. Not sure if Lalbaug, got its name from paan though the betel but and leaf exchange is an important something ceremony among the organisers of the Lalbaug’s Ganeshotsav.

    nice post.

  2. Reblogged this on Making Sense of the SENSEX – Blog and commented:

    Though this week did not go to dizzying 20800 levels like in October 2010, it was a week when the SENSEX had a paan on a day and red dribbled from the side of the mouth, the next day… till finally, it is the Taamboolam (exchange of betel leaves) occured on Friday…. to end the SENSEX at 20103.

    Enjoy the Blog!

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