'Fire paan' gives India's youth something to chew on

Vendors turn to innovation to fight declining sales of the traditional chewing mixture

The introduction of fire paan has helped to boost sales of the traditional chewing mixture in India. Getty Images
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Postcard from New Delhi

At a busy kiosk in Delhi’s bustling Connaught Place market, Mohammad Suhail watched nervously as the shopkeeper wrapped a mixture of sweet paste, spices and ground areca nut in a fresh betel leaf.

The shopkeeper then doused the small bundle with clove and peppermint oil before setting it alight and swiftly thrusting the blazing bundle into Mr Suhail’s mouth.

The young man’s eyes popped in disbelief as he chewed on the "fire paan".

“It tasted incredible. For a second, I skipped a heartbeat thinking it would burn my mouth,” he told The National.

“I had always wanted to experience this.”

The 26-year-old marketing professional is one of the many young Indians who have been queuing to try one of the latest innovations in paan, traditionally consumed as a post-meal mouth freshener and digestive. Many film the event to post on social media.

Fire paan, and other exotic variations of paan introduced in recent years, are part of an attempt to reverse its declining popularity.

Paan takes its name from the local word for the green, heart-shaped betel leaves in which it is wrapped into a triangle shape called “gilori”. The filling is usually a mixture of areca nut, spices such as clove, nutmeg, fennel seed, and a sweet paste made of rose petals and dried fruit, with the combination of ingredients varying according to taste.

Once considered a part of family bonding after meals a well as a sign of good hospitality, the use of paan has dipped in recent decades over concerns about its effects on health ― particularly from versions containing tobacco, affordability and changing trends.

The younger generation considers chewing paan unfashionable, and are turned off by the red stains left on the mouth by regular use.

Paan sellers like the Odeon Paan Shop in New Delhi’s Connaught Place have struggled amid a decline in the popularity of paan. Photo: Taniya Dutta / The National

Paan shops have turned to offering other products to survive, including “gutkha” — a mixture of chopped areca nut, tobacco, slaked lime and flavouring.

While a traditional paan is sold for 8-10 rupees ($0.10-$0.13) per piece, gutkha is available for only two rupees.

“Of all the customers I have received since morning, not one came for paan. People find paan expensive,” Zia ul Haq, a paan seller in Old Delhi, told The National.

Wholesalers of betel leaves witnessed a sharp drop in business as the popularity of chewing paan waned. Photo: Taniya Dutta / The National

The shrinking popularity of paan has also affected betel growers and traders.

At Old Delhi’s Naya Bans wholesale market, the number of betel leaf shops has halved to 100 over the past two decades, said Gopal Chaurasia, a third-generation shop owner.

“We have been witnessing a downfall, there is hardly any demand. Earlier everybody chewed paan, it was a status symbol, but now people feel ashamed of chewing it," Mr Chaurasia told The National.

"We don’t even sell 1,000 leaves a day now," he said.

“I do not see any future because people don’t chew paan any more. But if there is a new trend that can attract the youngsters, the tradition might survive."

Innovation

Some paan sellers have been experimenting with different ingredients and flavours such as pineapple, butterscotch, strawberry, and even cognac, to entice customers.

Unlike traditional paan, which cannot be swallowed and requires the user to regularly spit out the juice, the newer versions are edible.

One new version is covered in chocolate, stuffed with crushed ice for a cool aftertaste, and sprinkled with sweet syrup.

But the most popular innovation is fire paan, says Devendra Chaurasia, whose Odeon Paan Shop in New Delhi’s Connaught Place offers more than a dozen varieties of paan.

“We have introduced a variety of paan because the culture of traditional paan is dying. Flavoured paan sells more, these are more edible paan, not [just] chewable,” Mr Chaurasia said.

“People like this paan, although it has no taste, just smoky flavour. Because it is adventurous, people are excited to try this,” he said.

“But we have no complaints. Because of the creativity, the tradition is at least alive.”

College student Sunny Singh, 22, said he had never liked paan while growing up but was tempted by the new varieties.

“My grandmother always made paan at home, although I never liked the sharp flavour. But fire paan and ice paan are a great way to try the snack,” he told The National.

Varun Gupta, who also has a paan shop at Connaught Place, said the introduction of fire paan, which sells for about 40 rupees, had brought a considerable increase in sales to younger people.

“The older generation still prefers to consume the traditional paan but the younger generation is attracted to the new varieties,” he said.

“The craze among youngsters clearly shows it is not the end of paan in India."

Updated: September 18, 2022, 7:47 AM
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