Foods from around the World: Betel Nut

Preparing Betel nut in a pupulu leaf

Food Facts

Where: Chewed in many parts of Asia
Taste: Bitter and acidic – an acquired taste
Health: Rich in tannins but is now linked to mouth cancer in parts of Asia.
Serving Suggestion: Wrap in a peppery pupulu leaf and chew until fully stimulated (or sick!)

Betel nut is the fruit of the Areca tree, a wiry coconut palm which grows in moist ground in many parts of Asia, including Malaysia, India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines,and Micronesia. It’s a refreshing, mild stimulant which is chewed casually like gum, inducing a similar effect to an espresso coffee.  Betel nuts are rich in tannins and contain a red dye which over time will turn your teeth black and lips red.

Origins and History

Betel chewing is a tradition which dates back thousands of years. The bitter poultice is an acquired taste, and although it’s not clear why the people of the Pacific originally began to chew betel nut, the habit has been passed down through the generations and now provides a cultural link to their past.

Chewing betel nut is an everyday activity, but is also a fundamental part of social gatherings and celebrations. It’s often offered to guests as a sign of goodwill and to welcome them into the family home.

Serving Suggestion

There’s a number of different species of Areca, and some kinds of nuts are favoured in different regions or are only available at certain times of year. In Guam the favourite species is a hard, red nut with a grainy texture, known as ugam, whereas in Micronesia, softer, juicier nuts are prefered.

The betel nut is spilt open using a special instrument, and the husk is wrapped in a betel leaf called pupulu. Pupulu has a fresh, peppery taste, but depending on the variety of areca from which it comes it can be very bitter. Seasoned chewers might mix the betelnut with tobacco, or sprinkle the leaf with slaked lime.

More Information

Asia’s deadly addiction to betel nuts

Gadling Guide to Betel Nuts in Burma

Off your Nut – A guide to chewing in Papua New Guinea 

Betel Nut Chewing Traditions in South East Asia,Dawn F. Rooney