Betel quid—a harmless narcotic in decline

Woman preparing the quid

A woman in Myanmar's Tha Khilek preparing and selling betel quids ready to chew.

While traveling in the North of Thailand, the cross-grained Norwegian Carl Bock was impressed by the beautiful temples and the importance of elephants as means of transportation. However, he was easily upset by the habits of the local population, and particularly their ‘chewing betel’ filled him with disgust.

In his Temples and Elephants (1884) he recounts: ‘They are perpetually chewing. Whether they are busy or idle, they chew; whether they sit or walk, they chew. Teeth or no teeth, they chew. [Anyone] from almost infancy to old age, chews betel… The perpetual cramming of the mouth with betel is not conductive to ease in conversation, and [they] seem to seize on every occasion for conversation as an opportunity to replenish the mouth. The habit is very unpleasant, owing to the blackness which it imparts to the teeth as much as to the incessant spitting it gives rise to, and to the necessity for ever and anon removing the remains of the “quid” from the mouth.’

Bock shared his dislike for ‘betel chewing’ with almost every westerner in the Orient. Even the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who in the Malay Archipelago became an aficionado of the pungent smelling durian fruit, found chewing betel repulsive, especially when he observed children hardly yet able to walk (and some still being breast-fed) with a dirty red substance between their lips — even more repulsive than smoking cigars at that age. No wonder that the prim and tea-nipping British virgin Elizabeth in Orwell’s Burmese Days almost fainted when confronted with the shining red-tainted teeth of a smiling Burman.
However, for hundreds of millions of Asians the betel quid was the luxury par excellence. For thousands of years the peoples of Southern Asia and Melanesia were inveterate chewers of betel, giving rise to the claim that it was the most widely used narcotic in human history. Despite the rapid decline since the days of Bock, millions of Asians still enjoy their home-grown narcotic.

At all of Chiang Mai’s fresh markets, the ingredients of the quid are available at stalls also selling such products as incense and plastic garlands to be offered at Buddhist temples or spirit houses. However, in town a betel chewing person has become a rare sight. And the reddish Rohrschach blots of spat saliva so characteristic for betel districts, are completely absent from the pavements, where cigarette butts, splinters from broken beer bottles, and flattened cans of glue bear witness that modern urbanites prefer to stimulate their brain’s pleasure centre with other drugs. In the countryside betel-chewing is still kept up, especially by elder women, whereas in hill tribe villages the betel quid is also the preferred luxury of many younger people.

Basically the quid consists of three ingredients: the nut of the areca palm, the fresh leaf of the betel vine, and lime obtained from crushed shells. Most important are the nuts of the attractive, slender, 30 metre high areca palm (Areca catechu). These are called mak in Thai, but are in English often misnamed ‘betel nuts’ (while the palm is sometimes incorrectly called ‘betel palm’). They are the size of plums and grow in clusters at the top of the palms. Only during the last stage of ripening does the green colour of the nuts turn orange. Each nut contains a seed the size of a nutmeg — most of the nut actually consists of the strong fibers of the husk. Although bunches of fresh nuts are available all through the year, the dried fruits are also popular. Slices of them used to be sold, decoratively laced up with a string of split bamboo.

The fresh leaves of the betel vine (Piper betel) are also sold in bunches tied together with split bamboo. ‘Betel’ is a Portuguese corruption of ‘vetila’, the Malay word for ‘leaf’. The fresh leaf which gives the breath a pleasant scent, is the basis  for the quid.  The dried seeds are split or cut into pieces and a piece is placed on a leaf with a dab of lime. (White or pink lime in liquid form is sold in little plastic bags.) Then the quid is folded up, put into the cheek and slowly chewed for ten to fifteen minutes. It causes continual salivation and the saliva is stained red — hence the blood-red stains that spatter the paths in places with many betel chewers. Most of the quid is spat out, relatively little of what is in it is absorbed into the system.
The ‘parasymphatomimetic’ responses are similar to those of nicotine: contraction of the pupil, vasodilation in the head and increase of perspiration. Just as with chewing qat (a narcotic leaf popular in the Middle East), chewing betel is slightly activating and mood-improving. However, beginners do not find chewing pleasant, but if they persevere, soon acquire the taste. At first they feel dizzy, and the throat burns and feels constricted — these effects were already described in detail around 1700 by the blind German naturalist Rumphius on the Moluccas.
The nut contains numerous alkaloids of which arecoline and arecaidine are the most important. It is thought that lime converts arecoline into the more active arecaidine and/or facilitates absorption of the alkaloids, and thus the effect of the quid. Lime causes a strong burning sensation in the mouth, so no more than just a dab should be added to the quid.
The lime is likely the most harmful ingredient, for its acidity causes the teeth to wear down. On the other hand, other components of the quid are said to produce strong gums and prevent caries and intestinal worm infections. Eventually, in old age, betel chewing may lead to cancer of the mouth, though here in the north miang (fermented tea leaves chewed after meals) may also be the culprit. The long term health risks are, however, relatively small compared to those of smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol.
Also the direct psychotrophic effects are rather harmless: no loss of motor control, no tendency to aggression, no black-outs, just a mild euphoria. Even after chronic use, abstinence from the quid will not produce serious physical withdrawal symptoms, while the psychological dependency is less than for smoking tobacco. When in Java in 1904, even Emile Kraepelin, the father of clinical psychiatry, was surprised that betel chewing did not seem to produce any kind of disorders. Beside being a perfect narcotic, all the ingredients of the quid can be locally grown or cheaply obtained. Even nowadays the daily spending of betel aficionados is just a fraction of the 50 baht or so for the daily needs of a heavy smoker.
Although areca palms can easily be grown in a diversity of tropical habitats, trade in areca nuts has been especially important in the past. The northern coast of Sumatra was a major production centre and the export was partly monopolized. Around 1900 the export to Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia was still ten million kilogrammes. (The name Penang, the Malay island opposite the tip of Sumatra, actually means ‘areca’.) In present day Thailand, areca palm plantations are rare — I have only seen them in Bang Weak (near Bangkok), Chachoengsao province and a few other places. Cultivation of areca palms is mentioned in the oldest Thai historical source, the Stone of Ram Khamhaeng (13th century). It should be mentioned, however, that many scholars regard this stone with inscriptions as a fake. The numerous cultural traditions in which areca nuts take part, nonetheless, suggest that betel chewing has been popular over many centuries. It was also highly regarded by the aristocracy, and their precious containers for betel, lime and nuts, and implements for preparing the quid (like nut-slicers and lime spatulas) are exhibited in many museums. In the past, an aristocrat used to offer rather ceremoniously a betel quid to a visitor. When Bock was invited to the house of a prince of Lampang in 1881, he found himself surrounded by ‘a magnificent array of betel boxes, spittoons, trays, &c, all of fine workmanship and in unalloyed gold’. Exchange of areca nuts and betel leaves were an important ceremony during the traditional wedding and khan mak (the bowl with areca nut) was the common expression for ‘marriage’. Actually the areca nut is linguistically somewhat like the ‘mother of fruits’ since the prefix ma- in a number of fruit names (maphrao, coconut; makham, tamarind; maprang and makok, kinds of plums; manao, lime; mamuang, mango) is thought to be derived from mak (areca). There are several lively expressions with areca nut, e.g. ‘to hand out areca and glasses’ means to beat someone up (bleeding mouths and black eyes), whereas ‘expensive areca and lack of rice’ refers to economic hardship. Mak farang (chewing gum) literally means ‘the areca of the white-skinned westerner’.
Yet despite its qualities and its long tradition of the preferred luxury in the East, chewing betel has rapidly declined since the 19th century, when tobacco was introduced all over the region. Whereas in earlier centuries westerners mainly had come as traders, the British, Dutch and French were now establishing a tight colonial control over the area. As historian Anthony Read writes about the situation in Indonesia: ‘Once European males, the highest social caste of the colonial society, became firmly committed to the smoking of cigars or cigarettes, it was only a matter of time before the whole society adopted the habit. As the nineteenth century wore on, the cultural gulf between the European…and the Indonesian became even wider. To the European, nothing seemed more emotive a demonstration of the inferiority of the Indonesian than his habit of chewing betel, spitting the saliva on the roadside or even in the house…No doubt the development of bacteriological theory…added to the righteous indignation with which Europeans from then onward viewed the habit of spitting in a public place.’ The spread of Western-style education appears to have been closely correlated with the abandonment of chewing betel. In Indonesia, virtually everybody chewed betel in 1900, and virtually nobody did so in 1950.
Though Thailand was never colonized, trends here were similar. During the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1886-1910) the country modernized rapidly with the aid of western advisers, while the popular monarch himself became an aficionado of cigars. During the Cultural Revolution started by Field Marshall Phibun Songkhram in 1938, habits and lifestyle from the West were promoted with zeal to make the country look more civilized. Men were expected to wear a hat, shoes, socks, and long trousers. Eating the traditional rice with vegetables and nam phrik was discouraged, while eating noodles was promoted. During those turbulent days areca palms were cut down all over the country and chewing betel was declared illegal — to the great chagrin of Phibun’s mother, who loved it. Although many of Phibun’s decrees were nullified after the war, the popularity of betel chewing continued to decline. Two decades ago, women preparing a quid were still a common sight while traveling by local, ordinary train — nowadays they are no more to be seen.
SJON HAUSER: text and pictures

Areca nuts, betel leaves and lime are sold at Kat Luang, Somphet Market, Pratu Chiang Mai Market and some other places in Chiang Mai. Also a number of other ingredients of choice are available: pluak mai (the fibers of the bark of a tree) and tobacco to give the quid more volume, and black balls of sisiat, the sticky, hard extract obtained by boiling the wood of an acacia tree. The latter tastes very sharp and only a little dust scratched from a ball should be added to the quid. Last warning: do not add more than a dab of lime, and be aware that chewing betel on an empty stomach may be unpleasant. Otherwise betel chewing is very likely the most harmless narcotic indulgence in the world!