Betel nut, the dried fruit of the areca palm, often referred to as binglang in China, is enjoyed by people in some parts of China as it is in many parts of Asia and the Pacific. The fresh areca nut is chewed, sometimes wrapped in betel leaf or with tobacco and often mixed with lime, which helps bring out the active ingredients. . [Source: Dan Levin for The New York Times, August 19, 2010 ***]

People that chew it say its sets the nervous system buzzing and warms the body, especially after a large banquet. “It helps with digestion and sobers you up, Xie Shuo, a cellphone repairman who said he consumed 100 pods a day, told the New York Times. His smile revealed blackened gums and stained teeth, an unsightly side effect of chewing the fruit. “I’m addicted to binglang, but I really love it so it not a problem,” he said. ***

According to traditional Chinese medicine, betel nut aids digestion, removes plaque and expels worms. Many Chinese prefer to eat just the preserved husk, which seems to deter the fruit carcinogenic effects, according to recent studies. But local dentists and doctors denounce the practice, saying it can cause other mouth diseases.

Betel Nut

Betel nut (also known as pan) is very popular among some people in China. 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.

An estimated one tenth of humanity regularly chews betel nut. 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, but the way they are prepared varies from region to region. 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 refers 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 leaf 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 the fruit of the betel palm. They are about the size and shape of a hen’s eggs and are yellowish to scarlet with a fibrous covering. They grow in clusters of 200 to 300 and hang in bunches under the palm canopy at 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.

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: “ 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.

Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “As early as in 1985, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found betel quid (the combination of betel nut and lime paste wrapped in betel leaf) to have carcinogenic properties, just like tobacco. And like tobacco, betel nut is seen to be habit-forming thanks to the presence of arecoline. Similar in structure to nicotine, arecoline is believed to be the source of betel nuts' stimulating effect. The IARC in 2004 further identified arecoline as a possible cause of oral submucous fibrosis, a precancerous condition. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, February 2008 ~]

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, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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