The Tradition of Betel Chewing in Southeast Asia

Betel chewing

Betel quid and Betel nut. Photo from Shutterstock

Stained black teeth and oozing, red-colored saliva once signified a person’s wealth and beauty. The oral stain and overstimulation of saliva are caused by chewing betel nut derived from the betel or the correct term Areca catechu palm tree native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. For centuries, inhabitants of southeast Asia enjoyed betel chewing as a social pastime; the earliest evidence dates betel usage back to 10,000 BC, where remains of the areca plant were found in a cave in Thailand and betel chewing to 3000 BC when skeletons were found with blackening teeth in the Philippines. In 990 AD, a Chinese envoy recorded cultural uses of betel chewing by a Vietnamese king, and by the 17th century, western travelers recorded the phenomenon as a deep-rooted social ritual. Across the subcontinent, people would constantly chew betel. It was also essential to offer guests a betel quid as a sign of hospitality.

Today the tradition is not as common or well-known due to modern health concerns and the taboo associated with its light euphoric side effects and addictive nature.  Medical professionals argue that routinely chewing betel puts the person at risk of receding gums and even severe oral cancer. In 1930, Thailand banned chewing betel and the Burmese government launched awareness campaigns to limit consumption.  However, contrary to modern health concerns, ancient southeast Asia literature suggested some positive medicinal effects, such as good oral health, digestive properties, protection from infections and headaches.  The latest widespread practice of this ritual was at the beginning of the 20th century but died out considerably in the 1950s, along with health concerns; another factor is arguably related to shifting perspectives and modernization from colonialism. The imagery of black-stained teeth and red spittle quickly once considered beautiful shifted to negative connotations among the younger generation.

 

Significance

The function and meaning of the betel nut encompass more than just ritual chewing.  Historically, betel was used for medicine and food and featured symbolically in many important social and religious ceremonies. In Malaysia and India, betel nut is used in childbirth. In Malaysia, after labor, the mother’s bath is added with an areca catechu flower. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the betel nut plays a vital role in marriage celebrations, symbolizing love and faithfulness. For instance, a betel nut set is featured at a traditional wedding, and betel nuts are even offered as dowries.  At the last stage, betel is used in funerals. In northern India, relatives offer their final farewells by placing betel on the dead body. Because of cross-culture interactions, many betel nut preparation methods and cultural functions overlap across communities in the subcontinent.

 

What makes a betel quid

In its simplest form, the seeds of the areca nut are cut into fine slices, then rolled or folded into fresh betel leaves with ground lime paste spread thinly on the leaf. Depending on individual preferences, ground spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, clove, or tobacco can be added for flavor and fragrance. Once chewed thoroughly, the betel quid is then spat out. Sometimes tobacco or tree bark was used to rub the teeth clean afterward.  The areca nut is the seed found in an oval-shaped fruit from the areca plant. It is boiled and sun-dried and can be consumed both dry and raw. The lime paste is made by burning seashells and grinding it with water into a smooth paste; after it is fermented, sometimes cumin and turmeric are added, giving the finished product a red hue. In the absence of shells, lime can also be obtained from mountain limestones. Lastly, the leaves are cut fresh from the Piper betle.

Betel nut set and storage in royal Rattanakosin, Thailand

A daily oral tradition amongst commoners and elites alike, the materials and craftsmanship of a betel nut set indicated a person’s wealth and status. Only royalty and elites possessed quality metal or porcelain betel nut sets, or tools while a commoner might only have access to readily accessible materials like wood. However, betel nut sets do come down to individual preferences.

A gold royal insignia betel nut set

A gold royal insignia betel nut set adorned with gemstones. Photo from เครื่องอิสริยยศ พระบรมราชวงศ์กรุงรัตนโกสินทร์

Betel nut ware functioned as a symbolic offering to signify rank as well as containers to store ingredients. In the Rattanakosin period, the Thai court commissioned betel nut sets to offer to the royal family and high-ranking court officials. Those with royal linage would be offered a round stem tray with a betel set, and civil servants would receive an octagonal stem tray from the court. These sets would be displayed as insignias and passed down as heirlooms.

Photo of crown prince Vajiravudh

Photo of crown prince Vajiravudh later King Rama VI, to the left is a symbolic betel nut set. Photo from เครื่องอิสริยยศ พระบรมราชวงศ์กรุงรัตนโกสินทร์

A aristocratic Thai betel nut set

Antique Thai betel sets come in many variants, designs, and shapes. There is no rule indicating which ingredients belong to a specific jar. However, there is a standard practice followed in the royal palace.

Thai Betel nut set

A Rare And Finely Gilded Silver Niello Betel Set Comprising Of Four Boxes, A Small Bowl, a lime pot And A Betel Leaf Holder On A Round Tray, Sold at RCB Auctions for THB 220,000

A complete elite set typically includes a lime pot with a pointed tiered lid design containing lime paste. One fan-shaped container called betel leaf holder for pre-rolled quid and a small bowl for sliced dry areca nut or tobacco. Four covered boxes cascading from large to small for ground spices. Adding additional spices to a betel quid was considered lavish, so the more variety usually meant the higher someone’s status. Covered boxes sometimes feature beautiful designs in the shapes of fruits like pumpkins or mangosteens. For collectors, three boxes all of equal size are considered a complete set. Lastly, rather than a matching shallow tray, a matching stem tray is sometimes used by higher ranking aristocrats, whereas a more basic betel nut set may only include a tray and as many as 6 or 7 covered boxes for the ingredients.  Additional items include a betel nut knife or scissors for cutting the areca nut, a spittoon for excess spittle, a spatula for scooping out the lime paste, and a mortar. Many Thai and foreign collectors have sought these rare antiques, the price for a complete matching set with intricate design work fetching stellar prices. In owning a set, one can only hope to truly appreciate this cultural and social art history.

Betel nut sets offered at RCB auctions

A rare and fine sliver-gilt betel nut set (Southeast Asia)

A rare and fine sliver-gilt betel nut set, comprising of six covered boxes, each with gold finial tiered lids inset with gems, and a gilded sliver niello stem tray. Thai. Sold at RCB Auctions for THB 700,000

A silver miniature betel nut set (Southeast Asia)

A silver miniature betel nut set, comprising a trumpet shaped spittoon, four covered boxes, a lime pot with spatula, an open bowl, a betel leaf holder and a knife on a matching tray. Miniature betel nut sets were likely ordered for royal or wealthy children as play sets. Thai. Sold at RCB Auctions for THB 80,000

A carved and repousse’ silver betel nut set (Southeast Asia)

A carved and repousse’ silver betel nut set comprising of four covered boxes, a small open bowl, a pair of cutters on a silver tray decorated with floral design. Thai. Sold at RCB Auctions for THB 45,000

Further Reading

Ahuja S. & Ahuja U. (2011) Betel Leaf and Betel Nut in lndia: History and Uses, Asian Agri-History Vol. 15, No. l, (13-35)

Lim F. & Pakiam G. (2020) A Bite of History: Betel Chewing in Singapore, Website

Nguyên X.H (2006) Betel-Chewing in Vietnam. It’s Past and Current Importance, Anthropos, Bd. 101, H. 2., pp. 499-518

Reid A. (1985) From Betel-Chewing to Tobacco-Smoking in Indonesia, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3 pp. 529–530

Rooney, D. F. (1996). The role of ceramics in betel chewing rituals in Thailand, Asian Ceramics: Functions and Forms, 24-26.

Rooney, D. F. (1995). Betel Chewing in South-East Asia, Lyon: centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

The British Medical Journal (1921), The effects of Betel-Nut chewing, The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3176 pp. 808-809

บริษัท รีเจนซี่บรั่นดีไทย จำกัด (1996)  เครื่องอิสริยยศ. พระบรมราชวงศ์กรุงรัตนโกสินทร์