The art of betel chewing

These days in Myanmar, betel chewing is still common while the trend of smoking cheroots has dropped among Burmese men, compared to the old days. Even right in the cities of Yangon or Mandalay, you can see betel kiosks scatter almost every street corners. The betel vendors are ready to make you a quid in no time.

If you go to some street kiosks or stalls (the small streets stand that sell not only betel quids, but also cigarettes, matches and sweets), these vendors are also good at making betel quids. First he will shred betel nuts[1] with a small cracker (some shops already have small betel nuts ready for customers). He then will take betel leaf and with his gloved fingers, remove the stem and edge of the betel leaf quickly and thinly smear it with lime by a round small rod from the prepared lime pot. Lime is a key component and the quality of betel quids mainly depends on it. Also the customers make a choice of betel stalls based on their preferred taste of lime.

Then he will put together a bit of shredded betel nuts (areca nut), anise, cutch and dry tobacco leaf on the betel leaf and fold it from one edge to make a neat compact package. Then he will hand it to the customer who is waiting right in front of the stall. There you go! The quid is ready for a chew. The whole process only takes a few minutes.

According to a research paper I read last year, more than 60 percent of Myanmar men love chewing betel quids. Quite a big number indeed! But, more surprisingly, there is no specific reason why they love it. Most of the men find it difficult to explain why they are so fond of chewing the quids. Maybe the reason already lies in our local tradition and practice. However, given what are contained in a neatly-wrapped betel leaf, one can tell it’s an addiction that keep them chewing.

In the old day of Burmese king era, offering betel, tobacco and pickled tea was the way to express hospitality and welcoming manner to a visitor. Even the poorest family in a small village had betel quids to offer from their betel box. Fashion of betel box is quite interesting as well. The box can variably be lacquer, silver or bronze, well-designed or plain depending on the status of a family. In some big cities, rich families sometimes decorate their living rooms with a well-designed and priceless betel box.

The habit of betel chewing is still deeply rooted in the heart of our local life style. There are many sayings and idioms regarding betel chewing habits. For instance, a famous idiom “a quid of betel and a cup of water” means “no hope and nothing to live for”. Some people even name themselves after betel. For example, Kwan-Thi (ကြမ္းသီး), one of the famous clowns in Myanmar who passed away a few years ago, whose name literally means ‘betel nut’.

Chewing betel is not easy for a newbie. A smile that shows reddish-black stained teeth, also represents experience, it requires skills to taste and tell if betel leaf and dry tobacco are of good quality. You also need a ‘betel-spitting skill’ because you don’t want to stain your clothes red. With that many skills needed, betel chewing is definitely an art.

Want to try a betel quid? Start with a tiny bit first and share with me how you like it. Good luck with your first bite! But be careful it can be harmful for health.


[1] Although commonly called ‘betel nut’ the nut used in the preparation of betel quid is the areca nut. Areca nut wrapped in betel leaves is considered a psychoactive drug that can cause severe damages to health.

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