Chewing betel nuts in Myanmar – national pass time

When traveling around Myanmar, you will see small stands in every market, village, town, and city that are selling raw materials for what has to be the Burmese national pastime; the betel nuts for chewing. Betel nuts or kun ja in Burmese, has been in Southeast Asia for about thousands of years as a mild stimulant. They said that it is also good for treating chronic bad breath and getting rid of intestinal parasites. The betel nut is not actually a nut -rather, it is a seed from the areca palm that will be wrapped with betel leaves.

When I was in Myanmar, with my curiosity, I decided to try chewing a betel nut together with a friend. So we stopped in one of the stalls at the local market and asked the vendor for betel nut. I tried paying him some cash but he refused to accept it and he just smiled and started wrapping betel nut. The teeth of the vendor were stained red and black, and this is because of chewing betel nuts. We got the betel nuts for free maybe because he just wanted to see other nationalities chewing betel nut. He first coated the leaf with lime, which is actually not from a lime fruit but a calcium hydroxide. They used this to release the stimulant from the seed. After coating the leaf with lime he added a little tobacco fermented in rice wine, he also added some cardamom seeds, dried coconut and coconut milk, and some clove and dried mango. Then he folded the mixture into a small bite size packet. He handed us the finished products, at first I was hesitant to put it in my mouth but my friend already popped it into his mouth so I followed him. They said you need to place it between the gum and the cheek then chew it for a minute to 2 hours. Chewing betel nut makes you salivate that will cause you to spit so often.

At first, the taste was somewhat sour and grassy with a bit of a sweet medicine like taste. Chewing the betel nut was a bit gawky and chewing the seed felt like I was chewing a teak wood. It gave a numbing feeling to my jaw and I felt a slight sting after a few minutes of chewing then I started spitting some red juice. I can’t take the chewing any longer so I threw it in a paper towel as my tongue was extremely tingling and all I could taste was the mixture in my mouth. I just got rid of the taste after eating dinner with chilies and drinking some beer.

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