How far do you go …
For research purposes?
I ask because in discussion with a fellow editor recently, she was horrified to discover I’d chewed paan (betel nut wrapped in a betel leaf with other aromatics – somewhat confusingly, betel nut and betel leaf come from two completely different plants) when I was in India, and not only that, but when I was writing about an Indian colleague, I went to South London and found a vendor selling paan in the market so that I could remind myself exactly how it tastes.
Now betel does have problems: it is a potential carcinogen (but not if you only chew it a few times) it does stain your teeth red (and it does that almost from the first chew) and it is certainly an acquired taste (imagine chewing a sheet of paper made from dried lime rind and cracked pepper, with a faint undertone of tobacco) but so what?
There are things I wouldn’t do, but sometimes the only way to get inside an experience is to try what it feels like to be, not to observe.
What reminded me of this was a recent visit from a friend of a friend who arrived from Kerala bearing my favourite Indian milk sweets, a T-shirt with a palm tree picture on it … and a packet of paan. I grinned uneasily and took one, chewing weakly, before persuading my visitor that he would need all the paan during his stay, and his need was definitely greater than mine!
But for the few seconds where my mouth filled with scarlet juice I was back in India, with all the scents, sounds and heat of Kerala around me, and for that instant inoculation of another culture, it was more than worth it.