The Sweetest Paanwalla in Delhi

August 18, 2009–CN Traveler, Daily Traveler

Masood Ahmed’s paan stall is just like any other you’ll find dotting the streets of India: shelves of cigarettes behind, packets of paan masala dangling overhead, and in front, a pile of large, green betel leaves. It just so happens that Masood Ahmed makes what is, as far as I’m concerned, the best paan in Delhi (Paan Bandar, 268-B Basti Nizamuddin, on the street leading from Mathura Road to the Dargah).

Much remains unchanged about chewing paan, even though the tradition is nearly as ancient as India herself. Basic paan, betel leaf smeared with lime paste and wrapped around dry areca nut, acts as a palate cleanser and breath freshener, but it’s also popular for its mild stimulant effect (akin to a cup of coffee). Beyond the basic, though, is a laundry list of the flavors and scents of the subcontinent; every chewer has his preferences, and every paanwala–at least every good one–has his own inimitable style.

Ahmed has developed a loyal following for his sweet paan. On top of the standard lime paste and areca nut, Ahmed sprinkles fennel seeds, a whole cardamom pod, rose jam, candied fruits, coconut, dried currant, saffron syrup, honey, and shredded areca nut. Then, with his dark-stained fingers, he folds a glistening wet betel leaf into the traditional triangular shape around the whole thing.

The flavor of Ahmed’s sweet paan is still with me long after my time in India; I remember it longingly after nearly every meal, as a former smoker longs for a cigarette. More important, though, is the memory of him smiling every day, handing me that perfect green triangle.

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