by Suchitthra Vasu
Betel chewing was known in the colonial days as betel-nut chewing.1 The art of paan or betel chewing dates back to the pre-Vedic Saivite Harappan empire,2 and the activity is also known as makan sireh in Malaysia and Singapore.3 It requires three different plants used in combination: the betel nut which is the seed of the areca palm,4 the betel leaf which comes from the pan plant, and lime.5 The leaf is first daubed with lime paste and topped with thin slices of the nut before it is folded or rolled into a bite-size quid.6 It acts as a mouth freshener, helps digestion and creates a sense of euphoria almost like chocolate does. A betel chewer is recognised by the red staining of the mouth, gum, teeth and lips. Generating a large amount of saliva, the excess juices are spat out. These little morsels are sold on the streets or market. In traditional Indian households, a good host would offer a silver tray piled with a pyramid of paan after a sumptuous meal.7 The chewing of betel leaf (vettilai in Tamil) is more popular among the South Indians.8
The custom of betel chewing is over 2,000 years old, and it is estimated that some 10 percent of the world’s population chew betel nut.9 There is no equivalent habit in the Western world.10 From linguistic, archaeological, literary and oral sources, it seems likely that betel chewing was practised in Southeast Asia in prehistoric time.11
The origins of betel chewing are unknown, although it has been long held that the custom is native to India.12 References to the betel nut appeared in ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Chinese literature as early as 100 BCE. Its use was also documented by ancient historians in Ceylon and Persia around 600 CE, and parts of the Arab world by the eighth and ninth centuries. It is believed that betel was brought to Europe by Marco Polo around 1300.13
Even though the narcotic and stimulating effects of betel chewing had been noticed by travellers and botanists of the 16th century, it was not until the first half of the 19th century when attempt was made to study them scientifically.14
The most concentrated areas for betel chewing are where the climate and soil are suitable for the cultivation of the nut and leaf, and where there is an adequate source of lime.15
The “nut” used for betel chewing is the seed of Areca catechu, a member of the palm family. The areca palm is an unbranching, long plant extending up to 15 m, crowned with six to nine palm fronds. Found within the egg-sized fruit, the betel nut is round to oval in shape, and about 5 cm long at maturity. It is initially green with a smooth exterior, but gradually turns yellowish to brownish with a tough, fibrous husk. The interior of the nut consists of a white pulp with a brownish-orange core, which is the part used for betel chewing. Gathered just before ripening – usually between August and November, it is boiled and dried in the sun till it becomes dark brown or black.16 The major active ingredient of betel nut is arecoline.17
The betel leaf, on the other hand, comes from the pan plant, which is a subtropical vine with heart-shaped leaves.18
A receptacle (either a box, tray, or basket) to hold the ingredients for chewing betel is essential to a basic betel kit.19 The two main objects used in betel chewing are the areca nut cutter and the lime-box, to which is attached a spatula for applying the lime. There is also the brass box used for storing areca nuts, and various trays and bowls for holding the leaves and passing round the “chew” when entertaining guests. In addition, there is the mortar used by the toothless to grind the nut into paste.20
People chew betel for a range of benefits. The areca nut is widely used in veterinary medicine, mainly to expel parasitic worms in animals, while the pulp of the nut is used for relieving pain in the human stomach. Prolonged chewing is generally believed to keep the gums healthy by strengthening them. It also seems to prevent tooth decay as long as the teeth are cleaned. The reasons for these positive aspects of betel chewing are probably the fluoride content and the antibacterial effect of the betel leaf.21 Betel was also used in toothpaste in England around 1842, but claims that it strengthens enamel and removes tartar are questionable. On the contrary, it has been proven that betel stains teeth dark red and causes tooth decay.22
Besides being a remedy for bad breath,23 there are various Ayurvedic or Hindu medicinal uses for the betel leaf.24 It is said to be good for the heart tissue, and is believed to lower calorie intake and act as a diuretic. It is also mildly addictive. It is the general feeling of “well-being” that contributes to the popularity of betel chewing.25
There is an undated legend of Vietnamese origin which centres around the betel leaf and areca nut. The story is about a pair of twin brothers who both fell in love with the same beautiful woman. The older of the twin brothers, Tan, married the woman as Vietnamese custom called for the elder to marry first. However, one day, the woman mistook the younger twin brother, Lang, as her spouse and showed her affection to him. Having performed an extremely profane act, Lang, filled with remorse, left home and died of grief and was turned into a white limestone rock, symbolising his devotion.26 Concerned for his missing brother, Tan set off to look for Lang. By a twist of fate, Tan reached the stream where his younger brother laid. Overcome by grief, he died at the same spot where his younger brother laid27 and was turned into a straight and slender areca palm with fan-shaped leaves and areca nuts.28
Finally, the wife set out and found the place where her husband and Lang had died. She, too, collapsed in despair, and became a betel vine that crept and twined round the palm tree.29
The story is symbolic of the strong bonds of love and marriage, and explains the use of betel chewing with lime and areca nut to signify love and marriage.30
Almost 7 percent of regular betel chewers have precancerous lesions or leukoplakia on the muscosal lining of the mouth or on the tongue, which often lead to cancer in the oesophagus. Habitual betel chewers are also more susceptible to develop cancer in the mouth, caused by chronic irritation of the nut nestling in the cheek. Further negative effects include the loss of elasticity in the tissue lining the mouth, which leads to difficulty in eating and mouth ulcers. In addition, narcotic high from betel chewing 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.31
English name: Betel – comes from its Tamil equivalent, vettilai.32
Common name: Betel nut.33
Scientific name: Areca catechu, family name Palmaceae, part of the palm family.34
Indian name: Siri supari (Hindu).35
Chinese name: Pin lang.36
Other names: Arcea nut, pinang, penang.37
Common name: Betel pepper, betel vine, pan plant.38
Scientific name: Piper betle, family Piperacea.39
Indian name: Tambula (Sanskrit) for betel leaf.40
Regional names for betel chewing terms41
Country Betel leaf Areca nut Lime
China laoye hinlang shi-hui
India paan supari chunam
Indonesia sury jambi kapur
Malaysia sireh, siri pinang kapur
1. Dawn, F. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions in South-East Asia (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1993), 1. (Call no. RSEA 394.14 ROO-[CUS])
2. “The Epicurean, Palliative Pleasures of Paan,” Himalayan Academy Publications, published 1 February 1994.
3. “Makan Sireh,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 11 December 1913, 373. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 2 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002), 172. (Call no. R q031 NEW)
5. “How to Make a Betel Quid,” Straits Times, 13 September 1993, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 1.
7. “Makan Sireh.”
8. Vijay Menon, “The Betel and its Role in Hindu Functions,” Straits Times, 20 November 1981, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
9. D. Wayne, “The Story of Betel Nut,”; The Asia Magazine, 20, no. 24 (30 August 1981) 14–15. (Call no.: RSING q950.05 AM)
10. P.A. Reichart and H.P. Philipsen, Betel and Miang, Vanishing Thai Habits (Bangkok: Cheney: White Lotus, 1996), 11. (Call no.: RSEA 390.09593 REI-[CUS])
11. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 15.
12. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 13–14.
13. C. Nex, “The Betel Nut Tradition,” The Beam: Official Magazine of the British European Association, (March 1984), 24. (Call no.: RCLOS 052 BEA)
14. P. N. M. Penzer, “The Romance of Betel-Chewing,” Poison Damsels and Other Essays in Folklore and Anthropology (London: Grafton House, 1952), 289. (Call no. RSEA 398.0954 PEN)
15. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 1–2, 40.
16. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 1, 3, 17; Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 172.
17. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 25; Apurva Garg, Pankaj Chaturvedi and Prakash C. Gupta, “A Review of the Systemic Adverse Effects of Areca Nut,” Indian Journal of Medical and Paediatric Oncology, 35, no. 1 (January-March 2014), 3–9.
18. “How to Make a Betel Quid”; Himalayan Academy Publications, “The Epicurean, Palliative Pleasures of Paan.”
19. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 1–2, 40.
20. Penzer, “The Romance of Betel-Chewing, 203–204.
21. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 5, 26, 28.
22. Nex, “The Betel Nut Tradition,” 24.
23. Nex, “The Betel Nut Tradition,” 24.
24. Himalayan Academy Publications, “The Epicurean, Palliative Pleasures of Paan.”
25. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 1.
26. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 15.
27. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 15.
28. Hữu Ngọc and Lady Borton, eds., Betel and Areca (Hanoi: Gioi Pubs, 2005), 29. (Call no. RSEA 390.09597 BET-[CUS])
29. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 15.
30. Ngoc and Burton, Betel and Areca, 13–15.
31. Himalayan Academy Publications, “The Epicurean, Palliative Pleasures of Paan.”
32. Srivatsa, “A Leaf to Chew About,” Straits Times, 8 April 1981, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Flora and Fauna Web,” National Parks Board, updated on 16 September 2019.
34. “Betel Nut,” Encyclopedia.com, updated 8 June 2018.
35. “The Magical and Ritual Use of Herbs,” Source of Origin, published 30 November 2016; “Betel Nut Facts and Benefits,” HealthBenefitsTimes, accessed on 9 November 2017; James Propst, “Betel” magicalapparatus (blog), 23 September 2020.
36. “Areca Catechu, Linn. Family: Palmae,” Journal of the South Seas Society, 7, part 2 (December 1951), 5. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.005 JSSS)
37. Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 172.
38. National Parks Board, “Flora and Fauna Web.”
39. Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 172.
40. Himalayan Academy Publications, “The Epicurean, Palliative Pleasures of Paan.”
41. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions, 68.
Fiona Lim and Geoffrey Pakiam, “A Bite of History: Betel Chewing in Singapore,” BiblioAsia 16, no. 3 (2020).
Harry Beran, Betel-Chewing Equipment of East New Guinea (Aylesbury: Shire, 1988). (Call no. RSEA 732.209953 BER)
The information in this article is valid as at 2017 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.