The Betel Nut
A “betel nut” refers to the nut of the areca palm, which gives a mild narcotic effect when chewed. Although people usually refer to the nut of the areca palm as “betel nut”, this is incorrect. The “betel” part actually refers to the leaf of the betel vine, which is used as a wrapper for the various ingredients of betel chewing.
The betel nut is chewed as part of a package consisting of small pieces of the betel nut combined with some lime paste or powder (from limestone or coral) and some times tobacco, gambier or other spices, and these ingredients are packaged in the betel vine leaf. This whole package is referred to as the betel chew, quid or wad.
The final ingredient is saliva, so the betel wad has to be chewed on in order to get the required effect. The chewing creates large amounts of red saliva, which the chewer has to spit out, and gums and lips turn bright red.
Betel chewing originated in Southeast Asia, but today it is practised from East Africa to the Pacific islands and each culture has its own variations of the ingredients of the betel chew and its use.
In Singapore and Malaysia, betel chewing was an important part of ceremonies in Peranakan culture. Peranakan means “local-born” and the Peranakan are the descendants of early Chinese settlers to South East Asia, many of whom marriaged local women. Read More "Who are the Babas" (The Peranakan Association). It was only the older women (called Bibiks) who indulged in betel chewing on a day-to-day basis.
An example of ceremonial use of betel chewing in Peranakan culture is for the wedding ceremonies, where betel chew is offered at several stages of the ceremony. One example of use of the betel nut in the wedding ceremony is when the family and friends are invited to the wedding. The betel nut is used to invite the female family members. Female guests are given a small package of small pieces of sireh with some pieces of betel nut, which are placed in a silver bowl and wrapped in a square silk handkerchief. This tradition is called hantar sireh or presenting betel.
The Asian Civilisations Museum (Armenian Street) has an extensive collection of Peranakan sireh sets (betel boxes) and other Peranakan items, such as jewellery, furnishings and clothing.
Most cultures have some form of betel box to keep the tools and ingredients for preparing a betel chew. These boxes come in all shapes and sizes and decorations range from plain lacquered bamboo to very detailed painted lacquer boxes and intricately carved silver boxes. The decoration style all depends on the country, culture and wealth of the owner.
Betel nut chewing is still popular today, with estimates of numbers of users ranging from 200 million to 10% of the world population. No matter which one is closer to the truth, betel chewing is still a popular habit. An example is Taiwan, where in Taipei alone, more than 600,000 betel nuts are sold daily! Girls sell the betel nuts from road stalls, which are all over Taipei. Competition is tough so the girls compete for customers by wearing sexy outfits.
These girls are appropriately called the “Betel Nut Beauties” and there is even a film about these girls titled Betel Nut Beauty, which won the Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2001.
The following is an excellent website with detailed information, photographs, history, recipes and customs of betel nut chewing: Le Betel
Other interesting links with further information include:
- Betel Chewing - Significance to the cultures represented in Singapoe
- Betel Nut Island (Penang Island, Malaysia)
- The Takao Club – History of the betel nut in Taiwan with a section on the Betel Nut Beauties