On a stroll through the busy streets of Dhaka, Shawkat Ali, 27, keeps gesturing at the ground with disgust. He stops on the sidewalks in front of a restaurant, pointing out stains that look like dried blood.
These are the marks of betel leaves, consumed mostly in South and Southeast Asia as betel quid or paan. To the chagrin of pedestrians, some paan eaters spit half-chewed betel leaves and saliva onto the sidewalks leaving reddish-brown splotches.
But not if the paan is from Paan-Supari, an unusual paan shop that has four branches in Dhaka. “We sell the Shanchi paan from Maheshkhali, Cox's Bazar. It's tiny, sweet and delicious. And it does not produce the reddish saliva,” says Taslima Akhter who has been working here for four years. On most days, she works at the Banani branch, selling 16 different varieties of paan made from 180 different kinds of spices and ingredients most of which are imported from India. Other branches are located in the food court of Bashundhara City Mall, Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport and Dhanmondi-4 which was established in 2003.
Paan is part of life in this country. In rural areas, when guests come to visit, the host serves them paan, usually on a brass plate to welcome them and show respect. In Muslim weddings it is an integral part of paan-chini or engagement where the groom's family brings betel leaves and spices on a decorated tray. For ages it has been used as herbal medicine in the subcontinent.
At prices ranging from Tk 20 to Tk 170, the paan of Paan-Supari has become a popular after-dinner treat. It is made by folding dried fruits, nuts and pastes into a betel leaf, a member of the pepper family. Most people like it with candy-coated fennel seeds and rose petal preserves, chomping on it to freshen their breath or swallowing it to help digestion.
Although their main item is paan, they have a line of other products like Borhani (spicy yogurt drink) made from green mangoes and Paan Masala mouth freshener. The pieces de resistance are Paan Benarasi and Paan Hyderabadi, says Akhter. “We even have paan for diabetic patients.”
Shawkat Ali has been a denizen of the shop ever since he went to the branch on Dhanmondi-4 in 2012 with his fiancée, Ayesha Siddiqua, now his wife. They always go for the “Jamai-bou” that is sweet and has cherry in it.
“We cater to weddings and other ceremonies. At one wedding we supplied 6000 pieces of paan,” boasts Taslima Akhter. “We have a lot of famous people among our regular customers such as film stars Ferdaus, Anwara and Chompa.”
The store is air-conditioned and well organised: When you enter you are greeted with a welcoming smile. Taslima hands you the menu and if you are a newcomer she will recommend something that suits your mood and taste. Once you have given the order, she slips to the “paan maker” a token that is specific to a particular item. The tokens also help with accounting: it's easy to figure out at the end of the day how many paans have been sold and what kind.
Mohammad Akbar is to Paan-Supari what a master chef is too an upscale restaurant. Sitting in lotus position, wearing a cap when he starts folding the betel leaf, you know that you are in for a treat. He has learned the art from “Ustad” Ibrahim and has been working here for 9 years. “Although paan has some health hazards, our sweet paan has none. Ingredients such as Gulkan (made from the petals of the rose), raisins, coconut flakes, honey, cherry, almonds and dates are good for your health.” Tripti Kar, a former resident of Dhanmondi, who enjoys a sweet paan from time to time, says it is light and does not leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Inside the cozy shop, Akbar folds betel leaves for a steady stream of customers from 11am to 11:30 pm. “We sell about 100 to 200 pieces every day. On a busy day the sale may reach even 500.” Behind where he sits hangs a portrait of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumtaz, both admirers of sweet paan. Legend has it that when Mumtaz swallowed the red saliva produced by paan, people could see the blood-like saliva going though the veins of her throat. That's how fair she was, people say. Our paan-maker, unaware of the legend has at least one connection to all this: He shares his name with Akbar the Great, the Mughal emperor and grandfather of Shah Jahan.
A lot of young women who try it for the first time want to make their lips red. “For that I put khoyer (cured tobacco), chaman bahar, lime, and betel nut in it.”
The Borhani and the mouth freshener are bottled and packaged with the company brand name on them. Unless you see their operation, it is hard to believe that something like paan, usually sold at small roadside stalls in Bangladesh could be so well presented to its admirers.
So who came up with the big idea? “Although paan has for hundreds of years been a part of our culture, it has met a demise in the urban life,” says Kona Reza, CEO of Paan-Supari. “I wanted to introduce it to the young people.” Reza is an entrepreneur and wife of Faridur Reza Sagor, managing director of Impress Telefilm Ltd and Channel i. In 2008, Paan-Supari participated in a trade show titled “Made in Bangladesh Trade Show” in New York. She herself folded paan for customers of different nationalities like Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis and expatriate Bangladeshis who all loved it. “It was an amazing experience to be able to represent my country with something as simple and traditional as this. If someone looks at it as merely a business, it will not work. You have to have a passion.” She says her biggest satisfaction is that by working at the four branches of the store, 40-50 people have been able to raise their standards of living for their family members. “Most of them have been able to send their children to schools and colleges. Ibrahim's son goes to a university.”
She hopes to open outlets in the domestic airport in Dhaka and Jamuna Future Park soon. “We also want to expand into other cities like Sylhet and Chittagong. The biggest challenge I face is all spices and ingredients have to be brought from India.”
Paan-Supari has happy employees, the most valuable asset a company can have. “When our madam (Kona Reza) comes to visit, we feel happy. She treats us like family,” says Akbar. And who doesn't know that happy employees mean happy customers?
Shawkat Ali stops by Paan-Supari at Dhanmondi two or three times each week to pick up the sweet treat for his wife. It is a two-hour round-trip drive from his house in Shyamoli. “The happiness I see in Ayesha's face just after she has eaten a sweet paan is worth all the trouble.”