My First Betel Nut: Adventures in Papua New Guinea

Me with a green betel nut

Me with a green betel nut

Betel nut (areca catechu) chewing is an incredibly popular pastime in Papua New Guinea. I don’t know what the percentage of the population is who engages in the practice, but it must be in the range of 70-80%. Children are sometimes introduced to chewing in their infancy by parents: the chewed nut being put into their mouth by Mom. It is not uncommon to see young kids in school uniforms having a chew in the streets.

Betel nut is popular in many countries through the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The method of chewing varies from country to country. For example, in PNG a fresh betel nut is used. The chewer cracks the husk to expose the nut inside. Green betel nut is preferred by most, as the nut is softer. Once the nut is chewed into a mash, a small fruit called “mustard fruit” is dipped into a pot of lime (yes, the same lime you sprinkle on a dead body to keep it from rotting) and added to the mixture.
The mustard fruit adds a bit of flavor, and the chemical reaction of the lime added to the betel nut provides the “rush” enjoyed by the chewer, as well as turning the entire mixture, the teeth, and the spittle a deep orange-red colour. In Timor-Leste, they use slices of dried betelnut and a green leaf instead of the mustard fruit, along with the usual lime. In India “paan” is prepared specially with a variety of ingredients, sometimes with added spices for flavour But what every chewer is looking for is that chemical rush.

Taking the plunge

Taking the plunge

Speaking with betel nut chewers in different countries, the desired effect is described differently. A Timorese person told me they use it to feel less hungry. A Sri Lankan chewer once told me the same, that she chewed to stay thin and suppress her appetite. Papua New Guinean chewers have told me they chew to be social, and to gain energy. Indian chewers told me they like to have a chew after eating as a digestive. It’s obvious that chewing betel nut must be very addictive, as most chewers I’ve encountered have a several-drupe-a-day habit.

The World Health Organization has issued several warnings on the dangers of chewing betel nut. Regular chewers develop permanently stained and disfigured teeth. I suspect the lime reacts badly with teeth enamels.  Betel nut chewers have a high frequency of mouth and esophageal cancers – at least as high as regular smokers. Again, I’m unsure is this is because of the chemicals found in the nut, the lime. or the overall process. However, the social aspects of betel nut chewing in PNG seem to outweigh the risks, at least from the perspective of those who chew. Indeed, the volume of red spit in the streets and the related waste (like the tossed husks) is widely tolerated in the streets of Port Moresby, where sometimes the drains run red with “Buai” spit and are clogged with husks.

Do ya think I'm sexy?

Do ya think I’m sexy?

In any event, I  thought I would give it a try. I was reasonably confident that I wouldn’t get hooked on betel nut if I tried it once, and presumably I wasn’t going to immediately develop cancer from merely one chew. I also thought it would lend me a little extra cachet with my PNG colleagues. The experience was mildly unpleasant. The betel nut itself is very bitter, and has a rather odd texture. It is very soft, and rapidly becomes pulpy and fibrous as you work it into a paste. The mustard fruit is the best part of the experience. It actually tastes a bit like mustard, and adds a bit of crunch to the whole thing. The lime is just nasty. While is doesn’t affect the flavour, my mouth rapidly filled with spit, and I continued to salivate rapidly for the next 20-30 minutes. The spittle you produce is bright red and extremely difficult to wash out, so it is important to spit, and spit frequently but carefully, to make sure you don’t wreck your clothes. They caution me to not swallow any of the juices, or at least try not to. Newbie chewers like myself are known to get sick from swallowing too much of the nasty mix, and presumably ingesting lime is a generally bad idea.

Long term belet nut chewer in PNG

Long term belet nut chewer in PNG

What about the effect? Noticeable. I would describe it as a stimulant, as if I shot several espressos in rapid succession. I felt a general “awareness” and chattiness, as soon as I added the lime to the chew. The effect was not long-lasting and indeed I also noticed a bit of a post-chew crash or lack of energy about 20-30 minutes after I spat out the last of the pulpy mess. Presumably it is the rise and fall effect that causes the addictive effects. I have to date not succumbed to any desire to chew the stuff regularly. My total lifetime betel nut consumption stands at two, and I don’t anticipate that number to increase.

Note: The addictive ingredients in betel nuts are alkaloids, a class of chemicals which includes caffeine, nicotine, quinine, strychnine, opioid aka opium, morphine and heroin, cocaine, ephedrine, and the poisonous ingredient in hemlock, and is responsible for the bitter taste in many poisonous plants. Also, in those frogs with the poisonous skin you aren’t supposed to lick.  Most of these compounds are minimally soluble in water. The lime (often calcium hydroxide) is an alkaline or basic (high pH) substance reacts with the water-insoluble alkaloids and allows them to be extracted more easily and is responsible for the color change. – GG



Categories: History, Travel

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