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Pak still drools over juicy Indian paan

Aficionados still have a special place for the Indian betel leaf in their hearts.

india Updated: May 22, 2006 12:51 IST

Thirty-five years after being deprived of paan by the bitter separation from Bangladesh, Pakistan says it grows enough of its own juicy betel leaf.

But aficionados still have a special place for the Indian variety in their hearts.

The country has millions of paan addicts who savour it after each meal. According to rough estimates, an average Pakistani consumes 10-15 paans a day.

Earlier, Pakistan got its supplies from its then east wing (present day Bangladesh) and its leaders abhorred importing it from India since they considered India responsible for the country's separation from Bangladesh.

"We have spat away that habit," was the self-righteous response of a Pakistani, if offered a paan in the 1970s.

However, that is a matter of the forgotten past. Pakistan now not only imports its paan from Bangladesh and India, but also from Sri Lanka and Thailand.

These imports continue even though enough betel leaf is grown in coastal areas of the Sindh province, says the Daily Times newspaper.

Nostalgia and preference favour the Indian leaf, though. "Normally, customers demand Indian betel leaves because of their taste, but traders circumvent this bias by parading Pakistani paan as the Indian stuff."

"We lie only to satisfy our customers because we cannot offer them Indian paan at rates we normally charge for Pakistani paan," says Farooq, a wholesale dealer of betel leaf at Karachi's Jodia Bazaar.

"Local paan is the spitting image of the imported stuff," the newspaper says about the wholesale market in Karachi where the leaf is sold in baskets with markings of the countries it is imported from.

There is a big difference in the prices of local and imported paan, simply because a heavy customs duty is levied on imports.

The importer also has to pay a 10 per cent sales tax and five per cent income tax. Local paan costs Rs 100 to Rs 300 per kg while imported paan sells for Rs 450 to Rs 700 per kg.

The business in Karachi is managed mostly by Memon traders whose peers migrated from western India when Pakistan was created in 1947.

Abdul Karim, who runs a dealer's shop, says, "Pakistan mostly imports paan from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and India."

Pakistan was a big importer a decade ago but now local production is enough to meet demand.

"Paan from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bangkok is preferred for its sweet taste compared to local paan," explains trader Ashfaq Memon.

According to Memon, while paan is popular, gutka (a mixture of tobacco, betel nuts and chemicals) had affected the paan business.

At one time, chewing paan was an essential part of the culture of civilised families particularly for those who migrated from India to Pakistan after partition.

"There was a time when people would consider it highly objectionable if you purchased paan from a mohallah shop," points out an elderly citizen. "People offered guests paan from their paan daan (brass pale) but now this culture has vanished."

The paandaan was an essential part of a dowry for a girl in those days, but now one can hardly find this article in the market, he adds.

Tradition apart, business is good and keeps getting better, as locally produced paan competes with the more "exotic" eastern variety.

There are no figures available in the market on the consumption of paan. Traders dispute the quantity of betel leaves that Karachi consumes.

While some traders peg the average daily consumption at 6,000 kg, others put it at about 8,000 kg.

Dealer Mohammad Farooq estimates that around 90 per cent of local demand is met from betel leaf produced in the coastal areas of Sindh. "Our paan is just as good as paan produced in India."

Paan from Babiun, a small coastal town of Sindh, is reportedly the best quality available locally.

According to traders, there are roughly 40,000 farms along the coastal belt where paan is harvested.

There are four qualities in locally produced betel leaf that go by names like number one, two, three and number four. Number one quality paan is sold for Rs 200 per kg.

Sixty-something Mustafa has been working as a dealer for 40 years at the paan mandi (wholesale market), where he took over from his father.

"This market is decades old and much older than Pakistan," he claims. "We have plenty of paan addicts," a self-assured Mustafa remarks.