I Tried Betel Nut
When you have spent a bit of time in Myanmar — after you have gotten used to the spectacular landscapes, the incredible temples and the colorful characters — you begin to notice little things: pleasant aromas emanating from the tea houses, smiling children playing in the streets and red splotches everywhere, pocked on the ground. In some places there are so many spots that it looks like the scene of an accident or as if somehow the sidewalks had contracted a bad case of chicken pox. If you can stand it, look a little closer and you will notice that what you are seeing is crimson colored spit that has been expectorated from the mouths of thousands of everyday Burmese.
There is no avoiding it. These little speckles of spittle are everywhere people walk and, if you are going to go anywhere yourself, you just have to get over your disgust. The cause of this crimson plague is the Burmese people’s addiction to Dypsis lutescens, also known as Betel nut. It is also the source of the red stained teeth that is very prevalent in so many Burmese smiles.
I first heard of Betel Nut chewing in the pages of National Geographic Magazine when I was a kid. I had also read about it in numerous books about Asia and the South Pacific. I knew that it was a psychoactive stimulant (like alcohol, tobacco or caffeine) and prolonged use of Betel causes addiction; stained/rotten teeth and obviously an overwhelming urge to spit (kind of like chewing tobacco). It was everywhere. People in business suits and panhandlers alike were fouling the pavement with it. It was disgusting, but I had to know what the attraction was.
After we arrived in Mrauk U, in the northern part of Myanmar, Sarah and I came upon a quiet Betel Nut man, obviously bored, standing by his cart looking for customers. Our eyes caught so I went up and tried to have a conversation with him. Talking went nowhere because, he didn’t speak English and other than “Mingalar Ba” I speak no Burmese. Somehow I did get it across that I wanted to try Betel Nut.
This was an education. First of all, what we know as Betel Nut, isn’t really a nut at all and preparation is more complicated than you would think. You start by making a packet from Betel leaves, called a paan, into which you place areca nuts (which strangely is really a type of fruit known as a “drupe”), and lime paste. From there you can add optional ingredients including, spices like cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, fennel, nutmeg and cloves, tobacco, mint, candies, coconut, rose petals, rose paste, dates and just about any other aromatic substance you can imagine.
I couldn’t decide what I wanted so I chose everything and had him make two just for good measure! I would point at something and he would place, or shake, or rub it into the leaves, laughing loudly enough that it began to draw a crowd. I had no idea what I was doing, but apparently my choices were something that passed for great entertainment in sleepy Mrauk U. After putting all the ingredients together he closed the leaves neatly around everything and put them in a small bag for me to take away. Total cost; about twenty cents. Because I didn’t want to draw even more attention, I put the paans discretely in my pocket and we carried on exploring the town.
That night after a fabulous dinner of local river fish, lahpet (Tea Leaf Salad) and Khauk swe thoke (noodles with dried shrimp) at the communal table at our hotel I figured it was time. I open the bag, removed the paans and I put one far back in my mouth, between cheek and gum, and waited.
At first nothing, then a bitter and somewhat peppery taste. After a few minutes I could taste the rose, the lime and the cardamom. It was actually pretty good. I moved the little packet around with my tongue and, I guess because the packet was slowly leaking I started tasting the saffron and cloves. After a few minutes I started to get bored so I bit down on the paan.
There was a bit of a crunch as the nut broke, but nothing happened very fast. It started slowly, but after several minutes I was starting to detect the beginnings of a feeling like downing two double espressos and a shot of tequila. My lips went a little numb and I started salivating like a Saint Bernard eyeing a Prime Rib. Spitting in public is rude, so I excused myself and went to go find a discreet flowerbed where I could spit in privacy and watch the stars.
Overall the effect was pretty pleasant, but not overwhelmingly so. I guess addiction would have to sneak up on you. Under the right circumstances I might try it again, but I have to say I have had my curiosity about Betel sufficiently quenched. Like alcohol, tobacco or caffeine, it seems to be just another one of those habits that pulls some people in and leaves others alone.
If you look on the Internet it is said chewing betel will, “expel wind, kill worms, remove phlegm, subdue bad odors, beautify the mouth, induce purification, and kindle passion.” Perhaps with regular use I may have experienced some of those things, but for a one-time shot — nothing. Overall I found the effects to be pretty short lived and there was no hangover effect. Given the crimson color of my smile, I am certain that prolonged usage would have opposite the intended effect on passion. To make sure it didn’t; I went and triple brushed my teeth right after I spit out the paan.