Betel Chewing in Myanmar (and Elsewhere)

Betel nut is ubiquitous in Myanmar. Many people chew betel incessantly, despite half-hearted government attempts to curb the practice, or at least to stop the spitting associated with chewing. The streets are covered with big red blotches because, when locals finish chewing their quids, they hawk red gobs and streams of juice onto the roads and walkways, permanently staining the concrete.

The legendary British colonial chronicler of Burma, Sir James George Scott, also known as Shway Yoe, wrote, ‘No one can speak Burmese well till he chews betel’. That’s probably because ardent adherents have a quid stuck permanently in their cheek and this impediment affects their speech. It also affects their breath because it rots the teeth, turning them into gruesome reddish stumps, and it’s best to stay downwind from chronic chewers so as to avoid a whiff of the rank ‘betel breath’, as it’s called.

Thousands of one-man betel nut stalls are dotted throughout Yangon. Betel quid makers have a stack of small, green betel vine leaves, a pot of white, gloopy slaked-lime paste and an array of herbs and fillings, including cloves, aniseed, grated coconut, cinnamon, camphor, cardamom seeds, cumin and tobacco, plus small, broken pieces of the actual nut.

The ingredients are mixed on the leaf and a stick is scraped through the white gloop, which is liberally daubed over the leaf. The leaf is then carefully folded into a small packet or quid, and enclosed in a small cellophane pouch. Users place the betel nut quid in their mouth and slowly suck. The lime breaks down the ingredients quickly, leaving a pleasant but bitter spearmint-like taste in your mouth.

By the time the betel nut quid U Tun Htun has given me has totally dissolved in my mouth, with the hard nubs of nut softened into a mush, we have reached the outskirts of Yangon and it is time for me to do what all betel nut chewers do. When we stop at traffic lights I open the passenger door, lean out and expectorate a rancid red stream onto the road. Some Myanmar people in the car next to me are watching. They laugh and give me their version of a thumbs-up.

SOURCE: Land of a Thousand Eyes: The subtle pleasures of everyday life in Myanmar, by Peter Olszewski (Allen & Unwin, 2005), pp. 74-75

Well, I don’t know much about Burma, but I do know a bit about chewing betel. It sounds like the Burmese chew (or suck) just the dried pulpy core of the areca nut, and not the fibrous husk. Chamorros on Guam do the same, but as far as I know they don’t add spices, unless you count tobacco.

I first learned to chew in Yap, the betel chewing capital of the Pacific, where men, women, and children chew day and night, if supplies permit. Yapese prefer to chew young areca nuts, husk and all, wrapped in betel pepper leaf and sprinkled with dry slaked-lime powder. Baby bottles or babyfood jars are favorite lime containers these days, supplanting the small, hollow coconut or bamboo containers of old. If the nuts are small and plentiful, people will chew the whole thing, but people often bite the nut in two, then share half. Larger nuts might be quartered with a machete. In fact, the sharing of betel ingredients is a typical icebreaker in any kind of social interaction. People rarely have exactly equal supplies of nuts, leaves, and lime in the woven baskets everyone carries on Yap. (Brown paper bags often substitute when not in Yap.) The only additional flavoring Yapese sometimes use is tobacco. Dark, sticky twist tobacco is best, but some people will also bite off the end of a cigarette after popping the betel quid into their mouths. Yapese will often spit to clear the first, inadequately mixed juice from their mouths, but usually swallow after the juice gets redder and thicker. The betel mixture, especially with tobacco, is supposed to be a vermifuge of sorts, but chewing also helps to suppress hunger pangs. Betel makes your heart beat faster, and strong betel can make your head spin and your forehead sweat, but only for a short while.

Palauans chew a lot of betel, too, but they don’t tend to swallow, so people often carry around an empty beer or soda can to spit into, especially if they’re indoors. When I was in grad school at the University of Hawai‘i, you usually had to find a Palauan connection to supply your betelnut fixings, but nowadays in Hawai‘i little Korean convenience stores will often stock betel supplies in neighborhoods where a lot of Micronesians hang out.

But nowhere is betel more commercialized than in Taiwan. When we passed through Taiwan on the way back from Guangdong in 1988, my wife and I were pleased to find prepared quids available for sale from most small tobacconists. Chewing was common enough to prompt fastfood outlets like MacDonald’s or KFC to post “No betel chewing” signs on their premises. But our impression at the time was that betel chewing was more common in rural areas and among older women. Well, that seems to have changed, thanks to the marketing efforts of scantily clad binlang xishi (檳榔西施). Taiwanese betel quids are sold ready to pop into one’s mouth. The quid consists of a small split areca nut holding dab of lime paste and either a piece of betel pepper catkin inside or a wrap of pepper leaf outside.

UPDATE: Reader Lirelou’s comment needs to be prevented from vanishing into Haloscan’s black hole.

My first experience with betel nut was in Vietnam. With only a few days in country, I tagged along with a Vietnamese reconnaissance platoon and one US Sergeant for an ambush. Moving up into our position at about 02:00 in the morning, we were in turn ambushed. After much firing with no casualties, the VC withdrew. We followed after them and caught site of movement within a small nearby hamlet. The sergeant sent a squad up along the edge of the hamlet, and put an observation post on the river ford at the other side. A quick glassing with our starlight scope (early version of night vision goggles) led him to believe that our ambushers had sought shelter within the hamlet. At dawn we moved up, cordoned off the hamlet, and began our house to house search, just as the village path began to fill with people about their daily chores. As I approached a house with half a squad of Vietnamese, I looked down and saw a large splotch of red colored liquid with I took to be fresh blood. Motioning for the squad to stand fast, I excitedly called up the sergeant, reporting that I had found a blood trail. The Vietnamese troopers looked at me and grinned, which seemed a bit strange considering that there must be a badly wounded and presusmably armed VC nearby. As the sergeant approached, I excitedly pointed out my discovery. He laughed, and was about to explain my “blood trail” when a passing peasant woman let loose a long stream of liquid that splashed an identical red splotch on the pathway. The Vietnamese troopers now laughed hysterically, and quickly spread the news throughout the platoon. Needless to say, our search was fruitless, and over the next few months I would hear his congenial “Hey Lieutenant, seen any more blood trails?” whenever he judged that I was getting a bit too big for my britches. As a postscript, on a walk through the village two years ago I discovered that it was not only larger, but that the habit of betel nut chewing had disappeared.

My first impression from walking the paths of Yap in Micronesia was that I was on an island sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.

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3 responses to “Betel Chewing in Myanmar (and Elsewhere)

  1. Pingback: Yangoon, Myanmar Travel Photos » Patrick Love Photography

  2. Pingback: Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand ’13 | jacqueline & christopher swerin

  3. Pingback: Travel to Myanmar - Travel Podcast

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