Meet the Betel Nut: An Asian Drupe
Betel nut chewing is a cultural custom that’s extremely hard to miss when you’re in Asia.
If you’ve ever stayed for a while in rural Asia – especially in certain northern regions of the Philippines where Ifugao or Bontoc tribes reside – chances are you may have seen the many of the natives chewing happily on something that stains their teeth, lips, and mouths a bright, bright shade of red.
When I first went to Sagada to see the rice terraces, I had the shock of my life when I thought I noticed some of the locals spitting blood. Their teeth were terribly rotten, and their mouths were stained a violent shade of crimson red.
For a panicked few hours I was convinced that everybody in the area had acquired some never-before-seen strain of raging tuberculosis. That was, until I realised that before they spat, each of them had been chewing on something; something that caused normal saliva to ooze out of their mouth with a startling likeness to blood. (Which was a weird relief.)
I’ve now learned that this stained red mouth phenomenon is all down to the areca nut (technically a fruit, or a ‘drupe’), the seed of the areca palm, which is indigenous to Asia, the tropical Pacific, and parts of east Africa.
Chewing Paan (Betel Nuts and Leaves)
Along with other spices, but most often tobacco, areca nuts are sliced up, wrapped in betel leaves and coated in slaked lime before being chewed as a mild stimulant. This rousing concoction is widely known as ‘paan’ – and remains one of Asia’s oldest, greatest addictions.
Betel nut-chewing causes slightly heightened alertness and a warming sensation in the body – a buzz comparable to drinking a cup of coffee. If tobacco is added, the effect of nicotine is intensified. Repeated use is terrible for the health.
After chewing paan, the eater’s mouth is typically left with stained red lips and teeth, and causes profuse red coloured salivation. The saliva is usually spat out – which yields a viscous crimson stain upon whatever surface is spat on. Multiple municipalities and countries have laws against paan spitting in public places.
Asia’s Betel Nut Chewing Ritual
Betel chewing is a ritual, or tradition, which dates back thousands of years from South East Asia across the Pacific. Asian and Oceanic countries including the Philippines, Palau, Guam, Papua New Guinea, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Combodia, Vietnam, India, Nepal, and many others have adopted betel chewing as a popular cultural practice.
An estimated 600 million people around the world chew betel quids, which, after tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine drinks, makes them the fourth most commonly used psychoactive substance internationally.
According to scientific research, betel nut chewing greatly increases likelihood of developing serious diseases including cancers of the mouth and esophagus.
Chewing areca nut on its own has been linked to oral submucosal fibrosis, and in 2003, the World Health Organization sponsored group, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that sufficient evidence of chewing betel quid, even without tobacco, is carcinogenic to humans.
Further immediate health effects include gum damage and tooth decay.
Betel Nuts in the Philippines
In the Philippines, betel leaf and areca nut chewing used to be a very widespread cultural custom. In Tagalog, betel nut-chewing is colloquially known as buyo, bunga, hitso, or nga nga (which means “to chew”). In Ilocano, it is known as bua, maman or mama.
Even Philippine literature is no stranger to the buzzworthy betel nut. Chapter One of national hero Jose Rizal’s Noli Ale Tangere mentions a tray filled with cigars, cigarettes, and buyo (betel) that are used to warmly welcome prestigious visitors to the upperclass house.
Even Ullalim verses of epic Philippine scripture mark betel’s longtime cultural importance: “Behold here, a nice red ripe betel nut” is a mantra repeated throughout the verse Message of the Betel Nut.
Today, across the Philippines, betel nut-chewing is primarily done amongst the Lumads of Mindanao, lowland barrio folks, and the inhabitants of the Cordilleras. Although the tradition in urban areas, cities, and big towns has been switched out with the more modern vices of cigarettes and chewing gum, in rural areas, betel nut-chewing remains very much alive. The older generations on the whole tend to chew betel nuts. The same goes for Thailand.
However, in the Maldives, Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, Guam, and India, the chewing of areca nuts is ubiquitous and they are available almost everywhere, with or without betel leaf, and almost always with tobacco. The severe tooth decay and stained crimson mouths of millions of Asian, South East Asian and Pacific inhabitants around the world can be attributed to their addiction to betel.
Do people chew betel nuts in the UK?
Interestingly, and tellingly, possession of betel nut or leaf is banned in the UAE and is a punishable offence. The selling of betel in places such as the UK or USA, however, go largely unnoticed, sold openly at Chinese supermarkets or Asian markets.
Paan stalls and vendors can also be found predominantly Indian areas of London (although there are fines of up to £80 in some areas if you spit in public!).
In places like Vietnam, the betel ritual forms a very important part of new marriages. When the areca nut and the betel leaf come together, it is a physical signifier of their love joining together as one.
Should you try betel nut chewing?
If a native to the place you’re visiting ever offers you paan, you must absolutely accept it! The symbolism and ritual of betel nut-chewing and taking paan runs deep through the veins of Asia.
I’ve never tried paan, but I’d like to! Maybe not the trippy, vomit-inducing, head-rush kind of paan – but the sweeter paan, without tobacco, that doesn’t stain the teeth so much.
In any case, betel nut chewing in the Philippines – let alone the rest of Asia – is a huge cultural custom in certain areas. If that’s your cup of tea, go for it. Just be careful!
Have you ever tried paan or betel nut chewing?
This article was first published on Huff Post in 2016.