Let’s Spit to That!

May 18, 2011
*Special to asia!
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Chewing betel leaf and areca nut spells romance for some

833 Betel leaves and areca nut are sold in India as paan (Source: ngshannonhomeschool)

As a child I would see people chewing betel leaves and areca nuts and spewing out a stream of red juice onto the sidewalk. That is why I was surprised to learn recently that communal betel “quid” chewing plays a big role in Asian wedding etiquette.

In Vietnam, the areca nut and betel leaf are important symbols of love and marriage. The combination of the two is supposed to be ideal to the point that they are inseparable. A folktale explains the origin of this belief. A man and woman who had the ideal marriage die tragically. The story goes that the spirits turned the man into an areca palm and the woman into a betel creeper that twined around it. People who witnessed the transformation started the tradition of eating a mixture of betel leaf, areca nut and slaked lime or calcium hydroxide at betrothal ceremonies.

In Malaysia, nearly every Malay house has a box where the ingredients for the betel quid are stored. This is called a tepak sirih or betel quid box.

In many Malay meetings or gatherings, if the tepak sirih is not presented, it is a sign that the event has been cancelled. And if the box is taken away during a chat or a meeting, it signifies disapproval.

In a traditional marriage proposal ceremony, the tepak sirih takes centrestage. A procession of people from the potential groom’s side will present the box containing the usual ingredients plus tobacco and jasmine flowers.

If the box is accepted, and small portions of each ingredient are returned to the groom, it shows that the bride’s family accepts the proposal. If the marriage proposal is not welcome, the tepak sirih is returned untouched. This subtle system allows people to decline a proposal without causing embarrassment.


Other uses of betel leaf and areca nut

There is archaeological evidence that the betel leaves have been chewed along with the areca nut since ancient times.

In India, Sri Lanka and southern China betel leaf and areca nuts are used in ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine. According to ayurvedic medicine, chewing areca nut and betel leaf is a remedy for bad breath. It is also said to raise the libido. Powdered areca nut is an ingredient in some tooth powders. A few teaspoons of the powder boiled in water is also used to expel tapeworms and other parasites.

Old Vietnamese health books claim that chewing betel and areca nut decreases bad tempers and makes digesting food easy. A quid of betel is said to break the ice and make people more openhearted.

Sold by scantily clad girls in brightly lit booths along Taiwan’s streets and highways, betel leaf and areca nut rolls are popular because of their stimulating effect. Truck drivers on long haul trips are the biggest customers despite the link between chewing quids and oral cancer.

vivienne khooOnce a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

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