Paan, it seems, has always been more popular with women than men.
The fold or roll, inside a betel leaf, of chopped areca nut and a variety of other ingredients such as fennel seeds or chopped crystallised fruit, can be bought on just about every street corner in South Asia.
Originally, together with its accompanying slaked lime, it was originally an aid to digestion and breathes freshener, very much a social prerequisite to post dining social intercourse, and very much a social habit amongst the great, bad or good!
The staple ingredients are the leaf of the Betel vine, chopped nuts of the areca Palm.. Often mistakenly identified as Betel nuts.. Which grow in enormous bunches on the tall, slender palm, and paste of slaked lime. It is the latter that some medical authorities now identify as carcinogenic, the cause of growing rates of mouth cancer in the region.
It is said that eating paan, though probably identified as a digestif as much as 4 or 5,000 years ago, was first popularised by the mother of Shah Jehan, whose love of his wife produced the great Taj Mahal. It appears that, in those days, apart from an aid to digestion, the bright red juice produced by chewing paan was used to brighten the lips of ladies.
It is the same bright red juice that still identifies the paan addict, and has also led to the banning of spitting out the juice in many places. In Brent, London, even the use of paan has been banned as a result of the discolouration of pavements!
Across the subcontinent, variations in the ingredients of paan can be identified, but the growing of the leaves and the nuts is an important cash generator in many rural communities, especially amongst the most socially marginalised of small farmers.