If you’ve never tried paan — a post-meal mainstay at social gatherings and banquet halls in India — it can be a bit hard to explain to the uninitiated. Part breath freshener, part digestive aid, paan is essentially a wad of dried fruits, spices and seeds wrapped into a large green leaf from the betel nut plant. Think of those little candied fennel seeds you spoon into your hand at Indian restaurant, times 1,000. With paan, you pick up the entire triangular-shaped package and stuff it into your cheek pocket, chewing a few times to get the juices moving. The betel leaf, a mild stimulant, turns brick red as it’s masticated and puts a slight pep in your step. After all the juices have been released, you spit out the mushy bolus and toss it in the trash — breath fresher, stomach lighter and head abuzz.
One of the few places you’ll find paan in California —or even the West Coast, for that matter — is at KC Paan & Chaat House, a small storefront off Pioneer Boulevard in the heart of Artesia’s Little India neighborhood. Chaitnya Vyas, a Mumbai native who named the store after his father, has been manning the counter for the past six years, assembling snack plates known as chaat in the back kitchen and rolling fresh paan behind a small counter near the front of the store, where dozens of jars and drawers are filled with fragrant goodies like rose paste, candied fruits, cardamom pods and roasted fennel seeds.
If you’d prefer to eat first, there are terrifically spicy bowls of samosa chaat smothered with chickpea curry, chutney-slicked crispy potato sandwiches called dabeli, and heaping masses of bhel puri constructed from puffed rice and toppings like tamarind chutney, chopped herbs and yogurt, all arranged on a plate like a big savory sundae. Order a Styrofoam cup of the warm chai tea cut with a splash of milk, or try a thandai, a sweet, milky drink made with almonds, cardamom, saffron and black pepper. For such a small space, KC Paan & Chaat manages to pack in plenty of seldom-seen drinks and snacks straight out of Mumbai.
But while there are also packets of crisps, lottery tickets, cigarettes, incense, Bollywood DVDS and other convenience-store trinkets on the shelves, the main draw at KC’s is the made-to-order paan. “There are many [Indian] people here who want a taste of home,” Vyas says, “and in India paan is very popular, so we try to do it the true authentic way.”
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Vyas imports the betel leaves — a crucial ingredient — from Hawaii. A menu board above the counter lists almost two dozen flavor variations of paan, each made with a specific combination of fillings. Some include chewing tobacco, too, but most are what’s referred to as sweet paan — with candylike fillings stuffed inside a leaf that's perhaps topped with a bit of shaved betel nut. The largest sweet paan on the menu, Rajwadi Paan, is made with 26 different fillings and ends up the size of a candy bar when rolled. It costs $5. Vyas doesn’t recommend eating it in one bite. You might be better off going with the KC Special Paan for $3, a more manageable bundle made with a mere dozen ingredients.
Despite its massive popularity in India, paan is pretty rare in the United States. Part of that might be due to the fact that the World Health Organization has found that consumption of the mildly addictive betel nut can lead to higher rates of oral cancer, and that combining betel nuts with tobacco (as many South Asian countries do) makes for a double dose of carcinogens to the mouth. However, chewing one serving of sweet paan is less damaging than a single cigarette.
If you’re willing to take the paan plunge, watching Vyas assemble each heart-shaped bundle behind the counter is like watching a master jeweler construct a gem-studded necklace. The leaf is splayed out and brushed with paste, then the ingredients are piled on top until it seems the fillings will burst out of the seams. Once you tuck it into the side of your cheek and start chewing, the crunch of seeds, dried fruits and spices gives way to a crazy melange of flavors. Vyas recommends chewing a few times, sucking the juices, then repeating until it’s dried out. That last step takes a while. A true paan master might even be able to make the treat last the better part of a day.
KC Paan & Chaat House, 18167 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; (562) 355-2889, kcpaan.com.