If you ever travel to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands or Myanmar, you might very well notice that a lot of people there have, let’s say, less than perfect dentition. This is caused by the betel nut, also known as the areca nut. The areca nut is the fruit of the areca palm. It is widely popular around the Pacific countries and South and South-East Asia. The way it is consumed varies from place to place. In China for example, where it is known as binglang (槟榔), it is first cooked before being bagged and sold to consumers. In India and Sri Lanka, it was consumed together with betel leaves. It is a mild drug with an active component. While it is legal in many countries, its use now is always all of the time disapproved by health agencies.
In the Pacific, however, the nut is consumed raw. And it is everywhere. You’ll see betelnut sellers all over these countries. It doesn’t take much to become a seller. Buy a few nuts from the market, flip a box on the side of the street, put the nuts and lime on the said box and you’re a betel nut seller. While its bad effect on health is well known, betel nut use is rampant. People chewing betelnut in Papua New Guinea is certainly part of the scenery.
My Kingdom for a Spittoon
It is so common that most public areas such as supermarkets and airplane must put up signs to show that chewing betel nut is not allowed on their premises. The reason why it is often forbidden is that chewing betel nut involves sporadically spitting red saliva which stains, a lot. The red saliva comes from the chemical reaction between the caustic lime, areca and saliva. It is said that, in Bhutan, that red saliva was used as a substitute to stop people from eating people and drinking blood. Yeah…
While it is clearly messy and unhealthy, it is dirt cheap and offers a small buzz. So today, on our edition of Stuff Your Mother Would Rather You Didn’t Put In Your Mouth, let’s describe what it feels like to chew betel nut.
You’ll get a handful of betel nuts for one kina and you can just stick around, talk with the seller and get an all you can chew access to the caustic lime which is included in the price. The nut comes in its shell, so hopefully you haven’t destroyed all your teeth chewing yet as you will need to use your teeth to break the shell and get to the fleshy nut inside.
Then you put it in your mouth and start chewing the betelnut. Let’s say that it’s an acquired taste. The closest thing I could find to describe it would be earwax. Your mouth soon becomes full of juice, which you’re supposed to spit out, probably not in a very classy way. Then, you can add the lime and keep chewing.
Fear and Loathing in PNG
What does it feel like? It will probably wake you up, a bit. With one nut, you’ll probably feel awake as if you had an espresso. But the effect vanishes very fast. If you have multiple nuts in an hour, like your humble writer, you might get to the point where you feel like you had 5 vodka redbull for a few minutes. Wobbly legs yet totally awake. After a few, chances are that you’ll show a very red smile. It won’t make you get the meaning of life or see unicorns in rainbow underwear. With such a short buzz, you can understand how people spend their whole day chewing it… If you were to keep chewing for weeks, which we clearly don’t recommend, your teeth would probably stay stained and that’s what we call the red papua smile.
If after all of this you still want to try chewing betel nut, why not jump on our next tour to Papua New Guinea?