Samui Wining & Dining
Betel Times Ahead?

Betel nut may seem like an obscure drug, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Betel nut may seem like an obscure drug, but nothing could be further from the truth.Taiwan. Early evening. Neon signs on a glass-fronted store, men stopping their cars outside while scantily-clad women inside prepare small packages. The same scene is repeated all over the country. What’s happening? Customers are stocking up on one of the world’s most popular drugs - betel nut. Six hundred million people use it, mostly by chewing until the drug gets into the blood stream. A cultural tradition in some countries, but a scourge in all of them, betel nut is a problem affecting huge swathes of the globe. From school children in Papua New Guinea, already hooked by the age of six, to construction workers in Dubai, trying to stay awake, to farmers in Bangladesh facing a long slog in the fields, the chewing of betel nut affects the populations of many countries. And it has done for many generations. Evidence from archaeological sites suggests that betel chewing is at least 4,000 years old.

It was in the 1500s that Dutch and Portuguese sailors first loaded the holds of their ships with betel and its paraphernalia, and brought it to Europe. It never really caught on there – thankfully, as we will soon see – though today you can still find it lurking in the dusty reaches of Asian supermarkets here and there. What most people know about betel is that it’s chewed, has some kind of drug-like effect and turns the mouth and teeth a bright red.

The term ‘betel’ usually refers to two components. The first is areca nut, which over time hardens to the point where it can only be cut using a special tool. It is commercially sold in various forms, but when it comes to chewing, just a few slices are wrapped in the second component, a betel leaf, often along with slaked lime. The combination of nut and leaf together becomes a psychoactive drug and is mostly referred to as ‘betel nut’. One thing’s for sure: if the combination of areca nut and betel leaf wasn’t a drug, few people would bother with it, due to its rather astringent taste. It’s very unlikely that any chef, no matter how inventive, is going to pen a tome along the lines of ‘Favourite Betel Nut Recipes’. It’s really only chewed for its stimulant properties.

If you're from the west, you may never have seen anyone actually chewing on betel, so it might seem that it’s an obscure pastime, the kind of thing that you might only come across in some incredibly rural backwater. Here in Thailand, the chewing of betel has steadily decreased in the last decades. Young people rarely chew on it, and when they do it’s rarely in big cities and towns. You'll still see it in the form of small trays with betel leaves and areca nuts gracing Buddhist shrines as offerings. It’s still sold in some markets, but as the years go by, demand is sinking so steadily that soon it may become a rarity. Meanwhile, however, it enjoys varying degrees of popularity in many Asian and Oceanic countries.

If you're looking for signs that the local community is into chewing betel, you won’t just see the evidence on people’s red-stained mouths and lips, you'll also see it on the ground; chewing betel produces a lot of saliva that has to be spat out. It’s also bright red and an unmistakable sight on the pavement. The spitting alone causes it to be shunned, and governments in many countries are keen to ban at least the spitting aspect, which most people, including the habitués, find disgusting.

So what’s it like to actually chew betel nut? People report various different sensations. One thing unites them all - the taste. The vast majority finds it bitter, and that explains why, so often, it’s enhanced with various spices, such as cloves, cinnamon and so on. The effects, however, are likely to make the chewer forget the actual taste and to soldier on. Very quickly, he or she will experience a sensation of alertness coupled with euphoria. The first quality makes it ideal for those who are working hard at manual jobs and trying to keep awake. The second, the happiness factor, turns it into a drug that injects a sense of cheer into perhaps an otherwise morose day. A drug with not one but two hooks is bound to be unforgettable.

The downside is that betel nut is definitely addictive. It is a carcinogenic and can attack the mouth and throat. It’s responsible for millions of new oral cancer cases across the world. Various compounds are to be found in the nut, most importantly arecoline (an ingredient that is similar to nicotine). Amongst betel users, cancer is the number one killer, and is directly caused by the ingredients that are chewed.

These days we’re always being reminded how we should include nuts, seeds and berries in our diets, but when it comes to the deadly combination of areca nut and betel leaf, it’s best to avoid it. Though it is part of nature and not an artificial drug, the betel habit is a curse and not a blessing. Too many of those who chew betel wish they’d never started, and perhaps for the West it’s better that it never became part of people’s psyche.


Dimitri Waring


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