Friday, August 29, 2008

Vethalai Chellam

In South India, it was customary for most homes to have a vethalai chellam or a betel nut box, in which various aromatic materials used to make fresh betel nut quids (paan) were stored. Paan is a palate cleanser, and it is customary to chew this after a meal to aid in digestion.

Betel leaves and Areca nuts, the main ingredients of the preparation, together form the misnomer Betel Nut, since the betel vine itself produces no nuts. Various aromatic spices such as cardamom, fennel, saffron and lime powder also add flavor to the preparation.

Fresh betel leaves, sliced areca nuts, and the different spices would be stored in separate compartments in the vethalai chellam. After a meal, especially when guests would visit, the different ingredients would be folded within a fresh betel leaf to form the triangular paan. The ending of a meal with a tasty betel chew is customary and enjoyable even today.

Rustic, antique betel nut boxes such as this one are harder to find these days. My mother gave me the one we had at home and I just love its artful fretwork.

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