What exactly is Betelnut?

Betelnut SignI remember during high school I caught a PMV from Lae to Mt. Hagen in Papua New Guinea. In the same bus was a small group of American volunteers who were helping to build a school in Goroka.

When we stopped at Umi Bridge/Market to take on extra passengers and refreshments, I bought four piles of buai, threw them into my bilum and hopped back onto the bus.

I remember chewing a couple then realising that all the volunteers were defensively staring at me – I offered them some and they absolutely refused. One of them boldly asked me, “Isn’t that illegal?”.

I laughed, explained to them what betelnut was and eventually got one of them to try one. So, this post is for all of you who may have heard about betelnut but aren’t too sure what it is exactly.

The Areca nut is the seed of the Areca palm (Areca catechu), a straight and graceful palm tree growing in most tropical countries.

The areca nut is not a true nut but rather a drupe. It is commercially available in dried, cured and fresh forms. While fresh, the husk is green and the nut inside is so soft that it can easily be cut with an average knife. In the ripe fruit the husk becomes yellow or orange and, as it dries, the fruit inside hardens to a wood-like consistency. At that stage the areca nut can only be sliced using a special scissor-like cutter (known as Sarota in Hindi, Paakkuvetti in Malayalam and Aḍakattera in Telugu).

Usually a few slices of the nut are wrapped in a Betel leaf along with lime and may include clove, cardamom, catechu (kattha), etc. for extra flavouring. Betel leaf has a fresh, peppery taste, but it can be bitter depending on the variety.

Buai or betelnut at the marketAreca nuts are chewed with betel leaf for their effects as a mild stimulant, causing a hot sensation in the body, heightened alertness and sweating, although the effects vary from person to person. The areca nut contains tannin, gallic acid, a fixed oil gum, a little terpineol, lignin, various saline substances and three main alkaloids: Arecoline, Arecain and Guracine which have vasocontricting properties.

In English, the areca nut is also widely known as Betel nut (or “Betelnut”), because it is mostly chewed along with Betel, the leaf of a vine belonging to the Piperaceae family. The term “Betel nut” is technically incorrect, for the betel vine produces no nuts, and this inaccurate term creates quite a bit of confusion regarding the discernment between the nut and the leaf.

The muddling between the areca nut and the betel leaf, by calling the nut “betel nut”, is restricted to the languages of the colonizing powers, like English, French, Dutch, Portuguese and German. This lack of accuracy is likely a legacy of the colonial era in which chewing the mixture was restricted to “the natives”. In the languages of the places where the Areca nut is traditionally chewed there is a clear and separate term for the areca nut and another for the betel leaf. This clear distinction is important in societies where both the areca nut and the betel leaf have a ceremonial and even sacred value. Furthermore, there is commonly a specific verb for the activity of chewing both of them together.

Chewing betelnut and daka.In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, fresh areca nut, betel leaf or ‘fruit leaf’ (daka in PNG) and lime are sold on street corners. In these countries, dried or flavoured areca nut is not popular.

Areca nut chewing has recently been introduced into Vanuatu where it is growing in popularity, especially in the northern islands of the country. In Guam, betel and areca nut chewing is a social pastime as a means to extend friendship, and can be found in many, if not most, large gatherings as part of the food display.

Regular betel chewing causes the teeth and gums to be stained orange/red, a color that was formerly considered attractive in certain cultures. In Telugu poetry the slightly red-stained lips of a young woman chewing areca nut and betel are considered a mark of beauty. It is believed that regular chewing reduce the incidence of cavities, and toothpastes were once produced containing betel extracts. However, the increase in mouth ulcers and gum deterioration caused by areca nut and betel chewing may outweigh any positive effects.

According to traditional Ayurvedic medicine chewing areca nut and betel leaf is a good remedy against bad breath. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regards the chewing of betel and areca nut to be a known human carcinogen. Certain studies have sought to prove that regular chewers of betel leaf and areca nut have a higher risk of damaging their gums and acquiring cancer of the mouth and of the stomach.

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~ by Tavurvur on January 18, 2009.

8 Responses to “What exactly is Betelnut?”

  1. [...] further information, here’s a great blog entry on Betel nut Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Betel [...]

  2. pls advise what is the major difference between Arecanuts and Betelnuts.

  3. Hi Sanjay,

    They are the same thing.

    Tavurvur.

  4. This is the most informative blog on betelnut that I have ever read. Thanks!

  5. Great article. Good distinction between nut and leaf not often mentioned. What was the verb you mentioned for eating both together?

    • Thanks Russ – slightly confused by your question. It is referred to in PNG as “kaikai” or “chewing”.

      • Thanks – I was looking at the part where you said “Furthermore, there is commonly a specific verb for the activity of chewing both of them together”. I’d presumed that was something other then “kaikai” which is a general term for chewing/eating anything yes? – I’d not heard of a specific term before for eating buai and daka together, and would be interested if there is such a term. If you were referring to “kaikai buai” as being to eat/chew buai and daka together then that’s fine – Ta – Russ

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