I’m betting you’ve heard of chewing betel nuts, but aren’t really sure what they are. Am I right? I didn’t know what they were either until my husband and I traveled to a tiny little village in Vietnam named “So Village.” It was beautifully authentic, with narrow alleyways constructing a complicated maze which granted access to dozens of open air homes. Pigs shared each family’s living quarters and there were no doors to separate one from another. It was here that I learned the traditional art of chewing betel nuts.
What Are Betel Nuts and Why Do People Chew Them?
Betel nuts are actually the nut of the Areca tree which is widespread in Southeast Asia. When prepared the traditional way for chewing, they give off a hot, tingly feel in the mouth. Women are more likely to chew betel nuts than men, and they do so for a variety of reasons:
• Chewing betel nuts is said to give you a slight buzz or feeling of euphoria.
• Chewing betel nuts (supposedly) freshens your breath.
• Betel nuts are known to settle the stomach and work as a digestif after a meal.
• Chewing betel nuts turns your lips red, making women more beautiful.
INGREDIENTS FOR CHEWING BETEL NUTS
While in So Village we met an adorable elderly woman who shared her home with us for some refreshment and a lesson on chewing betel nuts. To do it properly you need three ingredients:
• An Areca nut (colloquially referred to as a betel nut)
• A betel leaf (which comes from the Piper betel vine)
• Lime paste (slaked lime that has been mixed with water to form a paste)
Our hostess had all her ingredients close at hand, and even though her lime paste was kept in a rusty old tin can with a bent lid that didn’t make a true seal, I couldn’t wait to give this experience the old college try!
The taste was bitter and the texture was chalky (probably due to the lime). The more I chewed it the hotter it got and the more moisture that collected in my mouth. But just like chewing tobacco, you can’t swallow the resulting liquid … you have to spit it out. Supposedly the longer you chew it the more permeable it gets and the redder your teeth, tongue and lips become.
I could have chewed it all day had it not been for the nasty requirement of regularly spitting out the juice. But after about ten to 15 minutes I threw in the towel and checked another item off my bucket list.
So, Did I Get High?
Unfortunately the only benefit I received from chewing betel nuts was the resultant red lips. I did not get any feeling of euphoria and my breath certainly did not feel fresh. As a matter of fact, grabbing my water bottle was the first thing I did after tossing my betel nut wad in the makeshift garbage can.
Chewing betel nuts may sound gross or at the very least unappealing, but it was a fantastic experience that I will never forget. That precious old woman opened up her home and shared her life with me. For those few brief minutes I transcended time and place and made a connection not possible through any other medium. I can still see her weathered smile with those betel-nut-stained lips … beautiful.