A version of this essay was published in The Age, ‘The East chews on’, April 5, 2006.
The market for betel is largely dead, a bygone habit once prevalent among Southeast Asians and Indians. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. But nothing
could be further from the truth. Young people in Southeast Asia don’t use it much now but plenty of others still do. And like much else, betel nuts (or more
correctly, areca nuts as betel is the name of the leaf in which they're wrapped prior to chewing) are now traded on-line, on portals such as India’s Trade.india.
mart.com and China’s Alibaba.com, by companies from Singapore to India.
Betel chewing is a habit that unites Southeast Asia with the Indian sub-continent, parts of southern China and the Western Pacific. Whereas alcohol was
associated with feasting, betel was the everyday social lubricant: it was offered to visitors to one’s home. And just as the English developed elaborate tea sets,
Indians and Southeast Asians developed elaborate betel nut sets. Betel took on symbolic meaning too and was a central element of traditional marriage
ceremonies. Among Malays, betel would be sent to the parents of a prospective bride and if they accepted it then it meant that they consented to the
marriage. And whereas the regalia of Europe’s monarchs included sceptres and orbs, that of Asia’s kings and sultans included golden betel nut sets, often set
The actual nut comes from the areca palm tree. Typically, it is sliced, mixed with lime (usually obtained from crushed seashells) and then wrapped up in a betel
creeper leaf and chewed. The lime reacts with compounds in the nut to produce alkaloids which give a mild narcotic effect. Large amounts of red saliva are
also produced which chewers spit out.
The nuts were imported into Victorian England in large quantities to make toothpaste which was sold in small porcelain tubs. The nuts were believed to aid with
tooth cleaning. Now they are suspected of being linked to mouth and throat cancer.
But the habit persists across Asia. In Taiwan, scantily clad women (binlang xishi or betel nut girls) sell betel quids to passersby in the same way that similarly
dressed women sell cigarettes at Thai boxing matches in Bangkok.
And in Papua New Guinea, usage is so widespread that betel nuts are actually part of the basket of goods and services that the central bank uses to calculate
the consumer price index. The central bank governor in his monetary policy statement to Parliament in January 2005 even explicitly pointed to an unexpected
fall in local betel nut prices as part of reason for the downwards revision in the anticipated headline inflation rate for the year.
Betel nut usage is spreading into the Himalayas too as new roads are constructed. And in Bhutan, the habit has received a kick along thanks to a blanket ban
on cigarette and tobacco sales imposed in 2005 by the King of Bhutan.
Betel nuts have even been the subject of recent trade disputes in Asia. Pakistan’s betel market is especially big: an estimated 50,000 tonnes of betel nuts
worth around US$40 million are consumed each year. Accordingly, its neighbours want a piece of the action much to the chagrin of local producers. In 2004,
Pakistan held up more than a thousand containers of imported betel nuts, mostly from Bangladesh. Pakistan cited concerns with disease under WTO rules for
Sri Lanka is an important producer of fresh betel leaf. The free trade agreement between Pakistan and Sri Lanka which came into effect last year explicitly
gives Sri Lanka a 35% preferential concession on the duty that applies to betel leaves imported into Pakistan.
Migration has spread the betel habit to the West. Go to many Bangladeshi-run small grocers in London and you will find betel nuts and fresh betel leaves
imported from Bangladesh for local Bangladeshi migrants to use. (The betel kernels shown below were purchased in London.)
Antique betel nut paraphernalia is becoming big business among collectors, adding yet another commercial aspect to the habit. A set of southern Indian brass
cutters used to slice betel nuts sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2005 for £6,690, probably setting a world record price at auction for such an implement. Much of
this has been kicked along by the publication of a book on antique betel nut cutters by London antique dealer Henry Brownrigg.
So what is chewing betel actually like? I’ve tried it once, in Rangoon with the manager of the investment arm of the Shan State Army. The Army fights for
independence for the Shan States from the rest of Burma (Myanmar) when it’s not involved in illegal gem trading and tending its vast opium poppy fields. The
senior Shan cadre showed me how to chew the betel quid and later took me outside to spit the chewed remains into the gutter. The effect was dizzying, like
when you have your first ever cigarette, and then mildly relaxing. As I went to leave, he reached into a large tub of uncut rubies and slipped a generous pinch
of them into my hand as a parting gift. A social lubricant indeed!
© Michael Backman
|Dried betel kernels that have been cracked open.
Each is about 1.5 cm across.
|Two examples of Victorian era toothpaste jars that advertise areca
or betel as an ingredient.
|An areca palm from which betel nuts are sourced.
Southern Sri Lanka.
|The betel vine used to wrap the betel quid for chewing.
Photographed in central Sri Lanka.
|A lady in central Sri Lanka - all the ingredients for the betel quid
are in the right foreground of the picture.