“Betel leaves and areca nuts were offered as a first conversation starter to guests”… Thousand year-old tradition of betel chewing constitutes an important and popular cultural activity in Vietnam…
The betel leaves are folded in different ways and have mostly some Calcium hydroxide daubed inside. Slices of the dry areca nut are on the upper left hand and slices of the tender areca nut on the upper right. The pouch on the lower right contains tobacco, a relatively recent introduction.
Areca nutsare usually dried and broken down into smaller pieces (sometimes into a powder) and mixed with edible lime to aid in the absorption of their active ingredients, arecaine and arecoline. Rather than being chewed, the mixture is put between the cheek and tongue and left there, sometimes overnight.
Betel has been the inspiration for minor art forms and there are many finely decorated lime spatulas, lime containers and other objects incorporated into the betel chewing kit.
Legend and Myth about the Custom of Betel Chewing
An undated legend of Vietnamese origins centre around the betel leaf and Areca nut.
The story begins with a pair of twin brothers who both fell in love with one woman. It was the older of the twin brother, Tan that married the woman as Vietnamese custom called for the elder to marry first. However one day in the confusion of identifying the right twin brother as her spouse the woman showed her affection to the younger of the twin brother, Lang. Considered an extremely profane act, the younger Lang, filled with remorse, left home and died in a far flung place across the river. On the spot where he died, a slender tree bearing nuts in the shape of a heart sprung out. Concerned for his missing brother, the older brother similarly set off and by a twist of fate, rested by the areca plant died at the same spot where his younger brother laid. He in turn changed into a block of limestone. Finally, the wife set out and found the place where her husband and his twin had died and she too collapsed in despair. She became a betel vine that crept and twined round the limestone.
The story is symbolic of the strong bonds of love and marriage and explain the use of betel chewing with lime and areca nut to signify love in marriage. Betel leaves are still offered at engagements and weddings. However, because of the natural high that this activity gives, chewing betel today has become a culinary speciality offered after a meal only for an honoured guest.
In Vietnam, the areca nut and the betel leaf are such important symbols of love and marriage that in Vietnamese the phrase “matters of betel and areca” (chuyện trầu cau) is synonymous with marriage.
Areca nut chewing starts the talk between the groom’s parents and the bride’s parents about the young couple’s marriage. Therefore the leaves and juices are used ceremonially in Vietnamese weddings. The folk tale explaining the origin of this Vietnamese tradition is a good illustration of the fact that the combination of areca nut and the betel leaf is ideal to the point that they are practically inseparable, like an idealized married couple.
How To Use Betel Nuts
According to traditional medicine, chewing areca nut and betel leaf is a good remedy against bad breath. If you want to try, you can buy betel nuts and edible lime. When chewed, the stimulant effect can be felt almost immediately and it lasts for three to five hours.
To make your own betel nut mixture, take an amount of betel nut (1/4 nut is a good place to start but use as much or little as you desire) and break into small pieces or powder. The pieces will be chewed, so you can break them up into any size you feel comfortable with. Something like vise-grips will break into small pieces or powder. Roasted betel nuts are easiest to break into smaller pieces.
After mixing, place the betel/lime in the side of your mouth between the cheek and jaw, and chew it once in a while. Let the mixture remain in your mouth for an hour or longer, and swallow any saliva your mouth produces. Try not to swallow much betel nut directly, it can cause an upset stomach.
When finished, spit out the remaining mixture, rather than swallow it. Effects are stimulating and can be compared to a mild amphetamine dose (for someone who is not tolerant to stimulants). There is also an appetite suppressing effect. They have a spicy taste and large amounts of saliva are usually produced when chewing betel nut.
If you like the taste, you can chew betel nut alone but the stimulating effect is minimized without lime. You can sometimes find flavored betel nuts by adding a bit of nutmeg or cloves to the betel/lime mixture to improve the taste…
Chewing the mixture of areca nut and betel leaf is a tradition, custom or ritual in Vietnam, with the familiar folk verse:“Loving each other, six-part areca nut is only separated into three parts
Yet, hating each other, the six-part areca nut will be separated into ten parts”