Features on Asian Art, Culture, History & Travel

X Close


Archives  >  WORLD  >  The Art of Chewing Betel

The Art of Chewing Betel

The Art of Chewing Betel

A Taste for the Areca Nut


                                                     "Even a Dog can have White Teeth," - Old Vietnamese saying

Chewing areca nut is an increasingly rare custom in the modern world. Yet once, not so long ago, areca nut – taken with the leaf of the betel tree and lime paste – was widely consumed throughout South and Southeast Asia by people of all social classes, and was considered an essential part of daily life.

Some idea of the significance of betel can be gained from an old Thai expression for times of hardship: "rice scarce and areca nuts expensive". Most Southeast Asians chewed from childhood onwards and then virtually without a break until death. For those who indulged, betel, areca, and lime were almost as important as the daily bowl of rice.

These days the chewing of betel in Southeastern Asia is limited, by and large, to old ladies in rural settings – though Taiwan, where nearly a fifth of the population indulge on a regular basis, is an important exception. Yet once life without betel would have seemed insupportable to Southeast Asians as a whole, and its preparation, presentation and consumption was considered a significant social grace.

Although betel chewing was widespread in South India and South China by the time of the arrival of Europeans in the late fifteenth century, it seems probable the custom first originated in Southeast Asia. Throughout the Malay world not just the chewing of betel mixtures, but also the preparation thereof, occupied a central position in the ritual and social life of people. Both the areca palm and the betel vine – essential ingredients of any betel quid – are indigenous to the region, and lime is readily procurable wherever sea shells are to be found.

Chinese sources from the early Tang period, nearly fourteen hundred years ago, describe Nan Yang, or the "Southern Ocean" – a generic Chinese name for Southeast Asia – as a region of betel-users. The very Chinese name for betel, pin-lang, is thought to be an early example of borrowing from the Malay term pinang. The Ming voyager Ma Huan, writing in the mid-15th century, notes that the Chams of Annam 'are constantly chewing betel'; whilst in Java “their mouths are never without this mixture. At the times when they wish to eat their rice, they first take some water and rinse out the dregs of areca-nut in their mouths... When they receive passing guests they entertain them, not with tea, but only with areca nut.”

To visitors – whether from China or Europe – it seemed as though Southeast Asian people were never without their chew of betel. Thus the Portuguese Galvão, writing in about 1544, notes that the inhabitants use betel “so continuously that they never take it from their mouths; therefore these peoples can be said to go around always ruminating.” Similarly the Spaniard, Pigafetta, noted in 1524 that all the islanders he met used betel because [he surmised] “it was very cooling to the heart, and if they ceased to use it they would surely die.” Nor was this habit limited to the islands of the Malay-speaking world. According to Borri, in 1633, the people of mainland Southeast Asia “chewed betel packages all day long, not only within doors, but even when they go up and down the streets... in all places and at all times.”

Chewing betel served several purposes. For travellers, a bag of betel quids helped stave off hunger and exhaustion. Warriors, too, used it as a stimulant to restore strength and courage. In social terms, betel filled the place today occupied by coffee, tea and cigarettes. Whether pausing to exchange casual greetings in the street, or making an elaborate social call, people would exchange betel quids and chew them in conversation together.

Elaborate betel sets of silver or semi-precious metals were essential items in any household of substance, whilst the less affluent made do with lacquer, porcelain, wood and basketware containers. Kings and nobles had personal betel carriers amongst their court retinue – usually favoured young women, though in the case of Ternate, in eastern Indonesia, female dwarves acted as betel servers to add to the charisma of the court.

Because the exchange of betel was deemed a social necessity, the essence of courtesy and hospitality, offerings of the ever-popular mix had to be made to the ancestors on ritual occasions, too. Betel-chewing was inescapably bound up with the mundane and spiritual rituals of birth and death. It was also widely associated with health and healing.

More particularly, betel was central to the rituals of courtship and marriage. It sweetened the breath, relaxed the mind, and was seen as a natural preliminary to the act of making love. Slicing the areca nut, and arranging it together with the lime and other flavouring ingredients in a delicately rolled betel leaf was one of the most intimate services a woman could perform for a man. In consequence, it was seen as a symbol of betrothal in some cultures, and as an invitation to love-making in others.

In time, betel mixtures came to be associated with contracts, agreements, weddings or other joyful occasions. After contracts were signed, betel was chewed to signify the final "sealing" of the agreement. The same was done in weddings, which is arguably the ultimate form of contract, tying two people together for the rest of their lives. In Thailand a prospective bridegroom would ask for the hand of his beloved by presenting a special bowl full of betel leaves and areca nuts to his future in-laws.

The gradual demise of betel as a universal social grace can be traced to the advent of tobacco, which was first brought to the Philippines from Mexico by Spanish vessels in the mid-16th century. Although initially more expensive and rarer than betel, Southeast Asian men took to the new stimulant with enthusiasm. By the early-19th century betel use had become increasingly associated with women, though even here tobacco – as a prized new ingredient of the betel quid – was making inroads.

 Still, as late as the mid-19th century favoured ladies of the Vietnamese court at Hue sported their blackened teeth with evident pride. A French Jesuit priest unwise enough to draw attention to this fact was informed by the emperor that "even a dog can have white teeth". In old Siam, too, similar beliefs formerly held sway. White teeth – now so prized by the immaculate, fastidious Southeast Asians – were once more closely associated with dogs, ghosts – and Europeans!


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media