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005 Cousins: Paan Leaves (Betel) and Black Pepper Leaves

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

Recently, while walking around our home stay Hide and Teak, I came across a farmer cultivating paan leaves. He generously cut a couple of them with his small sickle and gave them to my sons. When they tasted the leaves, they both accurately pointed out that the flavour was ‘kammu’ - baby Telugu for ‘spicy’. Suddenly I had an ‘aha’ moment. These paan vines or ‘piper betle’ leaves bore a strange resemblance to the black pepper vines I had seen in the spice plantations of Kerala. In fact the paan plant and the black pepper plant are cousins! They belong to the same family of ‘Piperaceae’.





Paan and Black Pepper both belong to the same family of ‘Piperaceae’.

As I dug deeper, the worlds of the Munda language, the Portuguese spice traders, a late fifteenth century royal recipe book from the Sultan of Ghiyath Shahi of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, and contemporary Telugu ritual practices unfurled before me.

The scientific name for the paan leaf - ‘piper betle’ condenses the Indian subcontinent’s history with food in two words. Piper derives from the Sanskrit word ‘pippali’ for long pepper which was mentioned in the Atharva Veda, since paan and pepper are cousins.

The word ‘betle’ comes via the Portuguese colonisers who altered the Malayalam word ‘vetthile’ and the Tamil words ‘verrilai’ and ‘vetrilai’ which means ‘truly a leaf’ (Source: K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, pg. 48).





Word roots from Sanskrit, Tamil, Malayalam and Portuguese!

Moreover as Achaya points out, the Hindi word ‘paan’ comes from the Sanskrit word for leaf - parna. And the Sanskrit word for the leaf is ‘thambula’ which has roots in the Austroasiatic language Munda which is still spoken in parts of India (Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura), and Bangladesh.

My husband’s Telugu family, like other South Indian Hindu families, always gives away paan leaves, coconuts, bangles, blouse pieces, haldi-kumkum, fruit and flowers during festivities. These are collectively called ‘tambolim’ and I have a hunch that the name tambolim probably comes from the Sanskrit word for the leaf ‘thambula’. As mentioned in the book ‘Sacred Plants of India’ by Nanditha Krishna and M. Amirthalingam, the paan leaf is considered a personification of Goddess Lakshmi’s palm. And through association connected with prosperity, wealth and health (pg. 98). Even in Marwari puja rituals, the paan leaf is used as a base to burn camphor, and to sprinkle water. It is almost as if Lakshmi herself is taking part in these rituals.


The paan leaf is considered a personification of Goddess Lakshmi’s palm

I recently came across ‘The Ni’matnama’ a 15th century royal recipe book from the Sultan of Ghiyath Shahi of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh. It has a painting of the Sultan enjoying paan, that contains the very expensive and luxurious saffron, and which has been sprinkled with rose water. This manuscript is currently in the British library in London.I hope to dig deeper into it in the near future and bring you more recipes from the past.



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