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Something to chew on: betel leaf wraps

Have you tried recipes with betel leaves? You can add a twist to lemonade, rasam and tea with paan

'Paan' lemonade; and betel leaf wraps.
'Paan' lemonade; and betel leaf wraps. (Photos by Nandita Iyer )

A betel leaf vine grows wild on my deck, giving it the look of an urban jungle. It’s a cool relief for the eyes in this atypically hot Bengaluru weather.

This vine is the child of the one that was growing at my aunt’s and uncle’s place in Mysuru, which grew to the height of their one-storey house. Six-seven years ago, my uncle gave me a few cuttings, which I planted in my garden. It took off quickly. Friends who come home never fail to be amazed at how gorgeous this vine is.

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For a year or so, the vine has been giving out fruits, which look like the pods on which peppercorns grow. They belong to the same family, Piperaceae, after all. These fruits have the most delicate and complex French perfume-like aroma.

Auspicious and cultural, betel leaves have a multi-faceted personality. In Hindu culture, no puja or offering to the deity is complete without a stack of betel leaves. Called tambulam in Sanskrit, exchanging betel leaves along with coconut or other auspicious items are often a mark of solemnising an engagement or wedding.

The cultural significance of betel leaves in India and countries beyond in South East Asia is immense. A Sanskrit shloka translated roughly into English goes like this: “A mouth devoid of Vedas, the juice of tambula (betel leaf), and witty sayings is said to be a mere hole.” As a child, I have attended my fair share of traditional Tamil weddings tagging along with my grandparents. The wedding lunch is always followed by a vethalai (paan in Tamil) session where family members and friends gather around a tray of the trilogy of vethalai-paaku-sunnaambu (betel leaf, areca nut, slaked lime) to gossip and critique the food served for lunch.

It’s amusing to note that just by virtue of being paan’s loyal partner in crime, areca nut (supari) is wrongly called betel nut. Areca nut has completely different chemical properties and effects. Chewing areca nut over long periods of time stains teeth in shades of brown to black, but that is the least of its side effects. It is worth noting that areca nut is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organisation.

The third wheel of this trio is chuna, slaked lime or calcium hydroxide. A parcel made with betel leaf, areca nut and slaked lime is called a betel quid or in Hindi as beeda. The chuna causes microabrasions all over the insides of the mouth, leading to better absorption of the active compounds from the other two components, heightening it’s stimulant and narcotic effects.

Grinding betel leaves and adding its extract to rasam, tea or juice retains its spicy, pungent and slightly bitter notes. Sauteeing and cooking down betel leaf softens its pungency considerably, leaving a herbal and floral aroma in the dish. My introduction to eating betel leaf in a dish was the Thai appetiser (Miang Kham) served at a restaurant in Chennai called Benjarong, well over two decades ago. I have made a version of this dish and shared the recipe below. Also do try a spin on the regular nimbu paani with a shot of betel leaf juice.

Paan Lemonade

Serves 2


4 large betel leaves

2-medium sized lemons

2 tbsp powdered sugar or any other sweetener

Quarter tsp black salt

Quarter tsp roasted jeera powder

Quarter tsp salt

Few rose petals for garnish (fresh or dried)


Roughly chop the betel leaves and crush them to a coarse paste in a small mixer jar using 3-4 tbsp of water. Pass this paste through a sieve, pressing down well with a spoon and collect the juice in a bowl.

In a jug, combine well betel juice, juice of two lemons, sugar, black salt, jeera (cumin) powder and regular salt.

Take 2-3 ice cubes each in two glasses and pour the paan lemonade over the ice. Garnish with fresh or dried rose petals.

Betel leaf wraps

Makes 8


100g firm tofu, diced small

1-2 tsp oil

Pinch of salt and pepper

8 medium-sized betel leaves (not very spicy)

3-4 tbsp roasted peanuts, crushed

3-4 tbsp toasted desiccated coconut

2-3 tbsp finely chopped onion or shallots

2-3 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves

1 tsp grated ginger

2 Thai red chillies (or green chillies) finely sliced

8 small wedges of lime

For the sauce

2 tbsp dark soy sauce

Quarter tsp galangal powder (or finely grated fresh galangal)

1 tsp finely grated ginger

3-4 tbsp liquid jaggery

1 tsp tamarind paste

Half tsp chilli flakes

1 tsp toasted coconut flakes

1 tsp crushed roasted peanuts


In a small pan, heat 1 tsp oil and toss the tofu in salt and pepper. Cook for 3-4 minutes until golden on the outside. Keep aside to cool.

Arrange all the other ingredients for the wrap in small bowls on a platter along with the washed and dried betel leaves.

To prepare the sauce, combine all the ingredients, thinning with 3-4 tbsp of hot water if need be. Decant the sauce into a bowl and place it along with the other ingredients on the platter.

To prepare a wrap, top the betel leaf with a tsp of each of coconut, peanuts, onion and coriander leaves. Top with sliced chillies, grated ginger and squeeze of lime.

Drizzle 1-2 tsp of the prepared sauce over the toppings. Make a parcel of the betel leaf and eat it in one bite.

*Instead of sauteed tofu, diced hard-boiled eggs tossed in salt and pepper can be used.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). She posts @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.

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