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What: Common all over India, paan is the traditional betel leaf palate-cleanser-cum-digestive, dating to ancient times, that’s chewed at (what seems like) all hours, but mostly after meals. From behind street stalls or inside shops, you’ll see the wide green leaves ritualistically filled and folded into triangles with a bewildering and picturesque assortment of ingredients, depending on what’s ordered—chopped areca nut, slaked lime paste (chuna), and red katha paste, the basic ingredients that together work as a caffeine-like stimulant; cardamom, tobacco, dried coconut, rose petal or sugar paste, fruit preserves or syrups, aniseed, clove, lots of other spices—and quickly wedged inside the cheeks of locals. Though there are today many variations on paan, for our purposes we’ll divide them into three types: meetha, or sweet paan; zarda paan (containing tambaku, or tobacco)—infamous for its teeth- and sidewalk-staining properties, as the red juice is usually spit out—and saada, or simple, paan, which generally contains only the basic three ingredients. We don’t encourage the taking of tobacco, and saada, though the most traditional, is also alleged to be carcinogenic (thanks to the areca nut), so we stuck to the meetha variety. Keep in mind that no matter how much sugar or fruit (or chocolate!) is added, all paan, with its intense flavor combinations and earthy textures, is an acquired taste. Being such an integral part of Indian culture, it is, of course, a must-try.
Where: One of central Delhi’s popular paan parlors, Yamu’s Panchayat (92, NDMC Market, map), on Connaught Place’s Outer Circle, is a good place to safely try lots of different paans, all of which are advertised here as “spit free.” Admittedly more beloved by young Delhiites than old-timers, Yamu’s still provides a great introduction to the art, and probably a good indication of where it’s headed.
When: Daily, 11am-midnight
Order: While Yamu’s does carry simple (25 rupees) and basic meetha paan (30 rupees), more like what you’d find on the street, the specialty here is flavored paan (40 rupees), of which there are 21 varieties, from mango and cola to pineapple and vanilla. Most of these mix the flavor of choice with more traditional ingredients like coconut, aniseed, lime juice, elaichi (cardamom), dried dates, and sugar-coated mukhwas, or “mouth freshener.” We tried strawberry, which was very sweet, and the more appetizing chocolate (pictured), drizzled with chocolate syrup and piled with milk chocolate pieces, among other things. An interesting combination, to say the least!
Alternatively: Other popular paan vendors are Pandey’s Paan (Shop No 3, New MP’s Market, North Ave., approx. map) and the Odeon paan shops (Odeon Cinema compound, D Block, Connaught Place, map), both in central Delhi. You can always try your luck on the street too.
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