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Chew On This: Indians Trading Betel For Tobacco

Asia

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

One of India's most distinctive traditions seems to be dying out. For centuries, the chewing of betel leaves, or paan, has been a habit that's crossed caste and economic lines, from the poorest farmer to the richest maharaja. But the leaf, and the time consuming ritual of preparing it, is rapidly giving way to a far more convenient but dangerous habit - chewing tobacco. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from New Delhi.

COREY FLINTOFF: A paan is a plump little bundle of flavor that consists of various spices and sweeteners, spread on a betel leaf and folded into a neat packet. Paan used to be the daily chew of everyone, from rickshaw pullers to wealthy gold merchants. It's believed to be good for digestion, so it's often served to guests after a nice meal in a home or restaurant.

Paan leaves have a distinctive flavor and texture, depending on where they're grown, and connoisseurs debate which are the best, just like fine wines.

Dulal Bera is a paan leaf broker in Chandni Chowk, the vast market in Delhi's Old City.

DULAL BERA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Bera says his family has been in the paan business at this location for some 60 years, but the business is dwindling.

BERA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He blames competition from a type of paan mixed with chewing tobacco called gootka, which is cheap and sold in single-serving pouches in small shops everywhere. Gootka sales have soared in recent years, but Richard Mahapatra, a journalist who's studied the paan market, says there are cultural changes in India that lead people to prefer tobacco over paan.

RICHARD MAHAPATRA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: For one thing, he says, people are coming to prefer fast foods over more traditional fare, and paan preparation is not fast.

MAHAPATRA: If you really want to spread a good paan that you prefer to have, it will take at least 10 minutes. But the chewing tobacco comes readymade.

FLINTOFF: Paan is also more expensive than tobacco, around 45 cents for a basic sweet paan, versus less than a penny for a dose of gootka. Regular paan use can also stain the teeth and lips a bright red.

Mahapatra, a senior reporter at the environmental magazine Down To Earth, says that's something that modern Indians try to avoid. That's not the case with Jitender Verma, a paan wallah, or paan maker in old Delhi. His mouth is a scarlet gash, and his be-ringed fingers are stained red as well. He says he's been part of this family business for 40 years.

JITENDER VERMA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He describes the steps that go into making up a simple paan, beginning by spreading the betel leaf with lime paste.

VERMA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Then he adds a chutney for flavoring.

VERMA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Then he adds chunks of roasted betel nut and sweet condiments. Finally, he folds the leaf into a neat triangle, held together with a tooth pick.

Just take a bite of it? The whole thing? It's juicy. Oh, it's really good. It's really good. It's very sweet and fresh.

There's almost always a line outside a good paan stall, where customers watch as the maestro prepares each treat. The lines are shorter than they used to be, though, and the competition is everywhere.

Just down the street from Verma's stall, a street vender displays long strips of mass-produced pouches of chewing tobacco, and the street is littered with empty packets.

India's government is considering whether to ban chewing tobacco as a public health hazard, but even if the ban goes through, it's not clear whether that will revive the tradition of chewing paan.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, New Delhi.

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