CHEROOTS AND BETELNUT IN MYANMAR

CHEROOTS

Cheroots are popular truncated cigars made from a choice blend of tobacco, bark, stems, roots and sundry leaves wrapped in a corn husk tied with a red silk thread. Found in India and South Asia but especially popular in Myanmar, they are smoked by men and women and even children. They can be home-made or manufactured. Manufactured ones have both ends clipped. Some are quite large.

Tours of a cheroot factory are offered at Inle Lake. Tamarind and Star of Anice are the brands made there. One visitor wrote on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum: “It turns out cheroots have very little tobacco and are mainly a mixture of flavorings, bark and a little tobacco. Also all natural, even down to the glue made from sticky rice. They're surprisingly very nice”.

Cheroots are a tradition in Burma and India. They became popular among the British during the days of the British Empire. The word cheroot is derived from the French word cheroute, which comes from a Tamil word meaning "roll of tobacco." It is believed that the French immersed this word into their language during the 16th century, when they attempted to influence the cultures of South India with the cultures of their own.

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar”: Cheroots are handy in such a situation. Around me in the compartment smiling Burmese puffed away on thick green cheroots and didn't seem to notice the stink of the growing yellow pool just outside. At the Shwe Dagon Pagoda I saw a very old lady, hands clasped in prayer. She knelt near a begging leper whose disease had withered his feet and abraded his body and given him a bat's face. He had a terrible smell, but the granny prayed with a Churchillian-sized cheroot in her mouth. On Mandalay Hill, doorless outhouses stand beside the rising steps, and next to the outhouses are fruit stalls. The stink of piss is powerful, but the fruitseller, who squats all day in that stink, is wreathed in smoke from his cheroot. [Source: Paul Theroux, The Atlantic, November 1, 1971]

Cheroots are often associated with Burma in literature. In "On the Road to Mandalay” (1892), Rudyard Kipling wrote:

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat -- jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:

Captain Percival Christopher Wren wrote: “My brother was unlike us in some things, Sahib. He was fond of the sharab called 'Whisky' and of dogs; he drank smoke from the cheroot after the fashion of the Sahib-log and not from the hookah nor the bidi; he wore boots; he struck with the clenched fist when angered; and never did he squat down upon his heels nor sit cross-legged upon the ground. Yet he was true Pathan in many ways during his life, and he died as a Pathan should, concerning his honour (and a woman). Yea—and in his last fight, ere he was hanged, he killed more men with his long Khyber knife, single-handed against a mob, than ever did lone man before with cold steel in fair fight. “

Cheroot smoking in India has had been linked to good health. Verrier Elwin wrote in a foreword to “Leaves from the Jungle: Life in a Gond Village”(1957) : “A final thing strikes me as I re-read the pages of the Diary that follows is that I seem to have spent much of my time falling ill. I attribute this to the fact that in those days I was a non-smoker. Since I took to the cheroot, I have not had a single attack of malaria, and my health improved enormously in later years." Most likely the cheroot's aroma, by sticking to the skin and hiding the scent of sweat, which draws mosquitoes, contributed to making the smoker less of a target for their bites.” [Scientists today it was more likely the smoke—which mosquitoes find unappealing—rather than the actual cheroot that helped keep disease away.]

Cheroots and Stogies

Jenn Jordan wrote in Blogcritic: “Many of us, myself included, who talk about smokes – either behind their backs or as we are inhaling - use the term "stogie" interchangeably with the word “cigar." But, from a technical stance, this is incorrect; to avoid angering both Merriam and Webster and having them throw their book at us, we shall correct ourselves. A stogie is actually not just any ol' cigar; a stogie is a Cheroot, a cylindrical cigar that – during manufacturing - has both ends clipped, making the cigar sound as if its been neutered. [Source: Jenn Jordan, Blogcritic, May 10, 2007 <>]

“As for the word stogie, the nickname of cheroot, it was derived from the word Conestoga, which was the name of the area where these cigars were first made popular. Some of the earliest smokers of these types of cigars were folks driving Conestoga wagons through the Conestoga valley of Pennsylvania. <>

“A characteristic of cheroots is their inability to taper. This makes them relatively cheap to manufacture mechanically and inexpensive to purchase, which, naturally, makes them a popular choice for consumers. Mark Twain, one of the world’s most famous cigar lovers, was photographed with a cheroot in hand on many occasions. He was believed to only purchase cheroots or cigars of a comparably cheap price; the expensive ones he smoked were rumored to be gifts. <>

While Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic are the roots of tobacco most commonly discussed, cheroots lay claim to Asia. Traditionally smoked in both Burma and India, cheroots are sometimes used as a Burmese reference in American and English literature. Once their popularity grew in Burma and India, cheroots also became prevalent among the Brits as the powerhouse British Empire reigned supreme. <>

Betel Nut

Betel nut (also known as pan) is very popular in Myanmar. Perhaps because of the unsightly red spitting associated with it betel nut was banned by the military government in the 1996 tourism year. Betel is a mildly narcotic nut (seed) that comes from the betel palm ( Areca catechu ). Used for at least 2,500 years, it is popular in India, South Asia, China, the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Theophratus discussed it. There are references to it in ancient Sanskrit texts.

According to the blog Mingalapar: When traveling around Myanmar, you will see small stands in every market, village, town, and city that are selling raw materials for what has to be the Burmese national pastime; the betel nuts for chewing. Betel nuts or kun ja in Burmese, has been in Southeast Asia for thousands of years as a mild stimulant. They said that it is also good for treating chronic bad breath and getting rid of intestinal parasites. [Source: Mingalapar, May 30, 2013]

An estimated one tenth of humanity regularly chews it. In many places, everybody chews betel nut, even children. It can be bought at almost any store. Many people grow it in their backyards. Some people even believe that ghosts chew it. Others regard it as magical and offer it gods and use it to ward off the evil eye.

Betel nuts are usually sucked on or chewed like chewing tobacco. They are often prepared by boiling, drying and slicing. In India, Taiwan, the Philippines and Southeast Asia, betel nut is usually dried and cut into small pieces and sold already wrapped in a ready-to-chew pepper leave. In India it is dried and called paan Paan Masala refer to an aromatic been blend of spices and condiments chewed with betel. On Yap and other Micronesian islands the nut is bit open while still green and then wrapped in a pepper leave along with some lime made from burnt and pulverized coral or clam shells, and then chewed. Sometimes it is chewed with tobacco or tobacco soaked in vodka.

Betel Palm

Betel nuts are about the size and shape of a hen’s eggs and are yellowish to scarlet with a fibrous covering. They hang in bunches from the top of betel nut palm trees. Betel nuts are harvested when the fruits are ripe. When the nut is washed free of pulp it is about the size of an acorn. Most people who collect their own nuts do so by picking them from the tree or knocking them with a stick.

The betel nut palm is very tall and slender. It can grow up to 100 feet tall with a trunk only six inches in diameter. It is topped by a grown of three, six-foot-long leaved divided into many leaflets. An adult tree can produce 250 nuts a year.

Betel nut does not grown on the coral atolls and residents of these islands are totally dependent on large islands for their betel nut supply.

Farmers like betel nut palms because they are easy to grow and maintain and require relatively little fertilizer. The trees bear fruit after five years and nuts are quite valuable. A farmer can earn about 16 times more growing betel than rice.

Betel Chewing

Betel nut produces a stimulating high that is similar to the high one gets from chewing coca leaves (the source of cocaine). Both betel nut and coca are chewed with lime, which stimulates saliva flow and causes chemical reactions with the chemicals in the nut to produce the mild stimulant.

Betel nut turn the saliva a bright red color. Frequent usage turns the teeth, gums and the inside of the mouth red and eventually black. The red juice that users spit is quite unsightly and places with many betel nut chewers often have sign forbidding the nut. Betelnut. The lime causes the copious amounts of red saliva. Don’t swallow it.

You can even tell a betel chewer when his or her mouth is closed—the fingertips are also usually bright red. Many people who chew betel nut have terrible teeth. Ironically chewers say they chew betel nut to protect their tooth from tooth decay and recent scientific research seems to back up these claims.

Some people chew beetle nut without lime, for the taste. The taste of the olive-size nuts has been compared with licorice and cheap toothpaste. Betel nuts can be brewed like coffee. In India it is sprinkled with spices and wrapped in leaves and eaten as a snack. In Malaysia, it is mixed with acacia gun, lime and nutmeg.. You can eat betel leaves.

Betel Chewing in Myanmar

In Myanmar betel nuts are mixed with tobacco, spices and calc (limestone paste). Brigette and Robert wrote on their blog “Brigette and Robert on Tour”: “Limestone is spread on a betel nut leave, and then they add the chopped nuts plus some chewing tobacco and wrap it all together. You can purchase your daily “quid” or “betle nut dose” on nearly every street corner. The mixture is supposed to energize you (bus drivers chew it to stay awake), but most men are simply addicted to it. [Source: Brigette and Robert on Tour, Blog]

According to the blog Mingalapar: “When I was in Myanmar, with my curiosity, I decided to try chewing a betel nut together with a friend. So we stopped in one of the stalls at the local market and asked the vendor for betel nut. I tried paying him some cash but he refused to accept it and he just smiled and started wrapping betel nut. The teeth of the vendor were stained red and black, and this is because of chewing betel nuts. We got the betel nuts for free maybe because he just wanted to see other nationalities chewing betel nut. He first coated the leaf with lime, which is actually not from a lime fruit but a calcium hydroxide. They used this to release the stimulant from the seed. After coating the leaf with lime he added a little tobacco fermented in rice wine, he also added some cardamom seeds, dried coconut and coconut milk, and some clove and dried mango. Then he folded the mixture into a small bite size packet. He handed us the finished products, at first I was hesitant to put it in my mouth but my friend already popped it into his mouth so I followed him. They said you need to place it between the gum and the cheek then chew it for a minute to 2 hours. Chewing betel nut makes you salivate that will cause you to spit so often. [Source: Mingalapar, May 30, 2013 ><]

“At first, the taste was somewhat sour and grassy with a bit of a sweet medicine like taste. Chewing the betel nut was a bit gawky and chewing the seed felt like I was chewing a teak wood. It gave a numbing feeling to my jaw and I felt a slight sting after a few minutes of chewing then I started spitting some red juice. I can’t take the chewing any longer so I threw it in a paper towel as my tongue was extremely tingling and all I could taste was the mixture in my mouth. I just got rid of the taste after eating dinner with chilies and drinking some beer. ><

Betel Nut, Health and Spitting

The active ingredient in betel nut is a volatile oil called arecoline. Released from the nut by saliva and lime, it is a mild central nervous system stimulant which increases respiration. Studies of the drug have shown that it improves learning and memory and counteracts intestinal parasites. Betel nut is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat headaches, stomach pains, venereal diseases, fever, rheumatism and other ailments.

Betel nut makes the saliva red. Regular usage stains the mouth, teeth and gums red. Long terms users have damaged and blackened teeth and damaged soft tissues in the mouth. Betel is considered a health hazard. It has been linked with throat, mouth and esophageal cancers

Brigette and Robert wrote on their blog “Brigette and Robert on Tour”: “Spitting – A National Phenomenon. We have to admit that it took us a while to get used to the look of people’s faces, especially men’s faces. Most Myanmari men have quite ugly looking red lips and discolored teeth. While you talk to them they always chew something and suddenly they start spitting out red saliva right next to you. You can see red spit on the streets literally everywhere. Let’s face it: it looks disgusting, but you get used to it. Different cultures, different habits! What they actually chew and spit are red betel nuts, mixed with tobacco and calc (limestone paste). Bus drivers spit their red saliva in transparent plastic bags while driving… we often had a seat in the very front – just envision this delicious sight and the wonderful noise when you try to fall asleep on a 15 hours bus ride?! [Source: Brigette and Robert on Tour, Blog]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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