Chewing Betel

July 2, 2001

The first time I saw it, I almost went into shock. An old woman hunched over the side of the road in downtown Bangkok spit a grotesque wet red glob onto the ground. I thought she was terminally ill. When I looked at her bright red and brown teeth, I assumed she had a bleeding ulcer. Wrong. She was simply chewing betel. Betel has been chewed in Thailand since ancient times and remains a popular activity today, especially in the countryside.

‘Pre-made betel’ or ‘make your own betel’ stands can be found at local markets and on street corners. Betel chews come in a wide variety of mixtures, some made specifically for women and some made specifically for men. The standard and basic ingredients for making betel chew are: betel leaf, betel nut, and lime (the mineral).

Betel chew designed for men can includes: chewing tobacco which may have been soaked in alcohol, lime (the mineral) with salt and lemon added, cloves, small shaved pieces of sweet wood, and betel nut.020701k1.jpg

Betel chew for women becomes even more complicated: fluid honey-coloured wax, and sweet wood shavings can be added to the basic betel mixture of betel leaf, betel nut, and lime (the mineral). The chewing tobacco is usually left out.

The ingredients for the betel chew are placed on a betel leaf and then folded neatly into a square pouch. The pouches are then placed in a glass jar and the jar is closed to keep the betel moist. Betel stands often choose to leave the betel leaf open so that the buyer can view the ingredients before making a purchase. It also helps the betel look more appealing.

The betel nut, betel nut, and lime (mineral) form a chemical reaction that is responsible for generating the red color in the saliva. People who habitually chew betel end up with red teeth. The teeth must be scraped to remove the stains. After chewing betel, it is common to rinse the mouth out with water and eat something either sour or sweet for a pleasant sensation and020701k2.jpg taste. Spittoons usually have a plastic bag placed inside them and are shared among the group of betel chewers, leaving quite a mess behind.

Chewing betel is said to be equally acceptable for both men and women generally above the age of 16-17. In fact, growing betel, cutting betel, washing betel leaves, and making betel chews is a common daily chore in the countryside. It is also a way to make money. Betel chewing is definitely more popular among Thailand’s older working class. Younger Bangkok residents tend to view betel chewing as ‘not hip’ and would rather smoke.

Betel contains a narcotic stimulant and is said to have some medicinal value. A friend of mine is a perpetual betel chewer. I asked him what the benefits of chewing betel are. He was quick to answer, “ It aids in the cleaning of teeth and the freshening of breath when a toothbrush is not available. It increases blood circulation, and increases heart rate. Chewing betel also helps dissolve phlegm.” I decided020701k3.jpg to try some with him.

I took a betel chew designed for a man but tried my best to remove the chewing tobacco. I then placed the pouch between my cheek and gum and waited. The first sensation was almost menthol-like. And then the cloves kicked in. My saliva started to flow and my mouth heated up. I spit and then I spit some more. Chewing betel is a full-blown taste bud experience indeed.

I tried hard not to let the ingredients fall out of the betel leaf, but I was told that it’s OK when this does happen. After concentrating on this new and strange experience, I began to notice that I was becoming extremely awake. I wondered if the betel had made me ‘drunk’. My head was in the clouds. I got up and walked around. I touched my nose. I stood on one foot. Everyone laughed at me.

I learned that my motor functions were not impaired at all. Rather, I felt like I had drunk thirteen cups of coffee, but without the coffee aftertaste. After finishing my betel, I ate some bitter fruit (pomelo) and had yet another taste-bud explosion. I also had a very difficult time falling asleep that night even though I had chewed betel at 8 pm.

I don’t plan on chewing betel again any time soon, but I do see why people enjoy it. I also didn’t get hooked on betel chewing after one round. I think betel would have been a great thing to have around during those very long study nights at college but if I ever really need to stay awake, I’m sticking with coffee. Red teeth are simply not for me.

Back to the table of contents...