Betel chewing


Betel chewing (known in colonial days as betel-nut chewing) requires 3 different plants used in combination, namely, the betel nut which is the seed of the areca palm, the betel leaf which comes from the pan plant and lime juice. Originating from India, this addictive habit is the Asian parallel to tobacco chewing. A pan leaf is smeared with lime paste, then packed with boiled areca nut and spices, rolled into a quid then chewed until it reddens the mouth.

References to the Betel nut appear in ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Chinese literature as early as the first century BC. Its use has also been documented by ancient historians in Ceylon and Persia around 600 AD and parts of the Arab world by the 8th and 9th century. It is believed that betel was brought to Europe by Marco Polo around 1300 and became an important commodity in the western pacific, particularly with the Dutch in the mid-1600s who gained from tax revenues on it. Today, it is cultivated mainly in India, Malaysia, Polynesia, Micronesia and most places in the South Pacific Islands.

Description of plants

The areca-nut palm (Areca catechu Linn.) is an unbranching, long plant extending up to 15 m and crowned with 6 to 9 palm fronds. The nut is the seed found within the egg-sized fruit. The nut is mottled brown with greyish white markings. It is gathered just before ripening usually between August and November, boiled and dried until it turns brown. The major active ingredient of betel nut is arecoline, constituting about 0.25%. It also contains small amounts of Pilocarpine and Muscarine. These ingredients have properties similar to the brain neurotransmitter acetycholine. The effects of chewing betel nut is similar to that of Nicotine. It produces a feeling of euphoria and acts as a stimulant. If taken on an empty stomach, it can cause a decrease in appetite and diarrhoea. As a distant relative of cocaine, it is not so potent but it still has addictive element in the narcotic alkaloid arakene inherent in the nut.

The Pan plant is a subtropical vine with heartshaped leaves that have a smooth glossy surface and visible veins running through it.


The active ingredients in betel nut has been used in veterinary medicine as a purgative and for deworming. It has also been used in toothpaste in England around 1842 but claims that betel strengthens enamel and removes tartar are questionable. On the contrary, it has been proven that betel stains teeth dark red and causes tooth decay. Aside from being a remedy for bad breath, there are various Ayurvedic or Hindu medicinal uses for the betel leaf. It is said to be good for the heart tissue, lowers the calorie intake, acts as a diuretic and is mildly addictive.


The art of Paan or the chewing of Betel dates back to the pre-Vedic Saivite Harappan empire. In Malaysia and Singapore the activity is known as makan sireh. The prepared nuts boiled, sliced and sundried are wrapped with a Betel leaf from the Betel pepper. The combination of betel nut and other condiments is also known as quid. The leaf is wrapped and sprinkled with burnt lime or chunam made from limestone or burning sea shells or coral stones in water -- the process producing a chemical called calcium hydroxide. The lime releases alkaloids and causes salivation. Other spices include catechu gum from the Malayan acacia tree (Acacia catechu), tumeric and cardamom. In India, tobacco is sometimes used in this mixture. A clove corn joins one end of the betel leaf to the other so that all the goodness of this culinary speciality is neatly packaged into one morsel. Then the package is chewed and sucked on for several hours. A Betel chewer is recognised by the red staining of the mouth, gum, teeth and lips. Generating large amounts of saliva, the betel nut chewers like tobacco chewers, spit out the excess juices. It acts as a mouth freshner helping digestion and creating a sense of euphoria almost like chocolate does. These little morsels are sold as candy on the streets or market. However, in traditional Indian households, a good host would after a sumptuous meal, offer a silver tray piled with a pyramid pile of Paan.

In ancient India, women used to chew paan to acquire a redness on their lips and mouth, serving as a primitive lipstick. It is traditionally regarded as a medicinal substance and an aphrodisiac drug. The practise of chewing Paan was adopted by Buddhism and thus the habit widened beyond India and moved to China, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand Cambodia, Malaysia, Sumatra and Bali. The habit was popular not only with the Far East but also amongst the Chamorros or Guamanians, where archaeological evidence indicates that this habit was practised thousands of years.

Legend and Myth

An undated legend of Vietnamese origins centre around the betel leaf and Areca nut. The story begins with a pair of twin brothers who both fell in love with one woman. It was the older of the twin brother, Tan that married the woman as Vietnamese custom called for the elder to marry first. However one day in the confusion of identifying the right twin brother as her spouse the woman showed her affection to the younger of the twin brother, Lang. Considered an extremely profane act, the younger Lang, filled with remorse, left home and died in a far flung place across the river. On the spot where he died, a slender tree bearing nuts in the shape of a heart sprung out. Concerned for his missing brother, the older brother similarly set off and by a twist of fate, rested by the areca plant died at the same spot where his younger brother laid. He in turn changed into a block of limestone. Finally, the wife set out and found the place where her husband and his twin had died and she too collapsed in despair. She became a betel vine that crept and twined round the limestone. The story is symbolic of the strong bonds of love and marriage and explain the use of betel chewing with lime and areca nut to signify love in marriage. Betel leaves are still offered at engagements and weddings. However, because of the natural high that this activity gives, chewing betel today has become a culinary speciality offered after a meal only for an honoured guest.

The Dangers Involved

Almost as high as 7% of regular Betel chewers have precancerous lesions or leukoplakia on the muscosal lining of the mouth or on the tongue often leading to serious cancers in the oesophagus. A loss of elasticity in the tissue lining the mouth causing difficulty in eating and mouth ulcers are further negative effects. Betel nut's narcotic high is invariably addictive and thus detrimental. The habit of spitting out the chewed betel is also believed to aid the spread of diseases like tuberculosis.

Variant Names

Betel nut
Common name: Betel nut.
Scientific name: Areca catechu, family name Palmaceae, part of the palm family.
Indian name: Siri Supari (Hindu).
Chinese name: Pin lang.
Other names: Arcea Nut, Pinang, Penang.

Betel leaf

Common name: Betel pepper, Betel vine, Pan plant.
Scientific name: Piper betle, family Piperacea.
Indian name: Tambula (Sanskrit) for the betel leaf.

Suchitthra Vasu


Jaffe, H. J. (1995). Encyclopedia of drugs and alcohol (pp. 161-163). New York: Macmillan Library Reference.
(Call no.: R q362.2903 ENC)

The new encyclopaedia Britannica
(15th ed.). (1997). Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica.
(Call no.: R q031 NEW)

Betelnut: Mama'on.
(n.d.) Retrieved October 13, 2003, from

The Epicurean,
Palliative Pleasures of Paan. Hinduism Today. (1994, February). Retrieved December 16, 2004, from

Further Readings

Beran, H. (1988). Betel-chewing equipment of East New Guinea. Aylesbury: Shire.
(Call no.: RSEA 732.209953 BER) 

Rooney, D. (1993).
Betel chewing traditions in South-East Asia. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: R 394.14 ROO) 

Chewing over a favourite pastime. (1996, March 24).
The Straits Times, Sunday Plus!, p. 4.

The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Betel chewing--Singapore
Ethnic Communities>>Customs and Traditions
Singapore--Social life and customs
People and communities>>Customs>>Eating and drinking customs

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