I can’t honestly recall the first drag of a cigarette I smoked. I suppose it was a cigarette a friend had stolen from their parents that 12 of us shared while standing around in a circle, thinking we were sooo badass but I honestly don’t remember. I do remember smoking my first clove cigarette though, which my best friend and I smoked like crazy for two weeks during our freshman year at high school. We smoked on our way to and from school, after school, while trying to be cool at the mall…virtually everywhere. Right up until she coughed up blood and we realized that maybe smoking was bad! We stopped, like good girls.
I have recently re-discovered cloves again here in India. The first time was at Skyye and I could smell them and that was it, I had to have one! It’s not that I enjoy the physical act of smoking so much because frankly I really don’t. What I love about clove cigarettes (Blacks is the brand here) is the sweet lingering after taste on my lips of the cloves. It’s wonderful. I know I shouldn’t like it but I do. I don’t smoke much, a few a week, and I typically only get through about a third or half before I put it out. But it feels quite naughty whenever I do because it reminds me of my rebellion as a teen, which is an added bonus!
After living so long in Barcelona, where it seemed like pretty much everyone smoked, I was pretty surprised to see no difference with the state of things here in India. It’s common here in Bangalore to smell marijuana or hash being smoked on the down-low at bars and clubs. In fact, India takes tobacco a step even further. I never saw anyone “chew” in Barcelona but here people chew, they smoke…and as of today I have now learned that people shove tobacco up their nose too!
I swear to you, I have never seen anything like it. I was on my way to work and Shiva had stopped for a light. I was happily people watching and happened to glance over to the auto rickshaw next to us and my jaw dropped then and there. A middle-aged woman wearing a sari was alone in the “auto” unscrewing a small silver canister about the size of a 35mm film canister. She put her thumb and forefinger in and came back out with a pinch of reddish coloured herbs …well, what I thought was herbs. She then took the pinch and – with ZERO attempt to retain any bit of lady-like appeal – shoved the pinch up her right nostril, moving her index finger around up there after to make sure it was going to stay in place, then repeated with the left side. WTF was that? Shiva (my driver) didn’t see it and I didn’t direct his attention to her in time, I guess I was mesmerized and spell-bound to a certain extent.
Well, it turns out that the reddish herbs in her canister weren’t herbs at all. That was another form of tobacco here in India! I have never heard of nose tobacco but indeed that’s what it was.
The other big tobacco product enjoyed here in India in paan. And like so many things in India there is a sweet and a “not” version of the product. In this case there is sweet paan and tobacco paan. Thanks again to Shiva’s diverse contacts, I was able to venture over to a paan and tobacco guy for a few laughs and a lesson on paan and how to make it.
Let me set the scene for you first. This little wooden kiosk is covered in sheet aluminum and couldn’t be bigger than three square meters, which is set up on a busy street, right at the entrance to the Airlines Hotel (famous more for their food and the funky restaurant than for the hotel). There are a couple dozen little tins on the counter with who-knows-what in them. There is a drawer for cash and a cabinet with supplies. The guy in the kiosk – Pandit is his name – was sat down on a wooden box…sat with his legs crossed pretzel-style and … of course! … he was barefoot and working with his bare hands right above his feet! And when guys come up to buy stuff, he passes certain things OVER the counter and other things around the side in a way that looks like a shady deal is going down. And as with lots of things I want to do, it seems as though street paan is an all-male sport! I know that women do consume it too but I was the only woman at the paan guys shop…well, at least no other women came up to it during the 30 minutes I was there.
If you don’t know what paan is, it is essentially handmade chewing tobacco or sweet “chew” pouches that small kiosk tobacco shops like this one whip up in the moment when you place your order. They are rolled into fresh leaves that are kept cool and moist in a bucket of water. The kiosks keep several types of leaves in the bucket so that guys from Kolkata, for example, can enjoy paan with the leaves from their region. Paan seem to be purchased one at a time.
The ingredients or their quantity will vary a bit depending on who is making it. The typical ingredients were pretty mind-boggling for me because they actually include raw calcium! Dang! Didn’t know they sold that but it looked like concentrated milk more or less.
So here’s how it’s done: Pandit picks up the leaf that is requested or the standard deep green heart-shaped leaf from the betel vine. He then uses a brush to wipe on a 2 inch line of calcium, then some Heerapanna veg masala, a small spoonful of a saffron blend and then he mixes that all up with his fingers (gotta love India!). Next he adds a spoonful of coconut powder, some anise seeds, betel nut powder, some brown sticky goo that smells like honey and has rose petals and sugar in it called gulkand. Next he adds candied cherries that have been infused with mint, some cardamom and last some betel nut. He folds up the leaf into a little triangle, places that inside a tiny plastic bag and then wraps it up into a neat little package with a bit of yesterday’s newspaper.
A friend told me that lots of people keep the ingredients on hand at home and that wives will whip up paan for their men after dinner. My guess is that this would be the tobacco paan? A friend also shocked the hell out of me by saying the word SEX for the first time to me when he explained that both men and women will enjoy a sweet paan right before they have sex. My guess is he was talking about him and his wife but he didn’t say… he did say that this was something newlyweds did (again, my guess is that he’s talking about first-hand experience!).
I tried the sweet paan that Pandit made for me and you know what? The taste is amazing! But I don’t like the way it instantly turned my tongue an orangey brown. And it’s sooo damn big that I was a bit uncomfortable shoving the whole thing in my mouth. Perhaps it might be better for women if it were a bit smaller? On the plus side, my entire mouth and lips must taste so sweet and minty right now. I understand 100% why this might be fun to enjoy just before heading off to bed 😉