In the days of old in Thailand, if you have watched the stories of the ghostly Mae Nak or any other old Thai stories, you would have noticed that the men and women in those days had red blackened teeth. This was as a result of chewing Betel nut leaves which was an old tradition and mostly lost now among the young generation who in some countries prefer to chew tobacco.
Seldom even in Thailand can you see this old Thai custom unless you happen to know someone who still likes this traditional habit. It is actually quite an art form when you notice the way it is prepared. There are special utensils used for making this Betel nut paste. Some people prefer to chew the nut and leaves together as a whole with the nuts cut into small pieces while other prefer to make it into a paste. The art of Betel nut chewing has been around for more than a thousand years and no one really knows its origins.
I was fortunate enough to get a chance to watch my friend’s elderly mother making some for her past time pleasure in the small village of Surin. It started with her going out into the little plot of garden to pluck some fresh Betel leaves which grows in abundance and has a nice lingering spice smell but a bittersweet peppery taste that has to be acquired. The Betel plant is actually a creeper plant which grow wild in the tropics and aside from being used in Betel nut chewing it is also used for cooking. Some Thai and Malaysian curry dishes use the Betel leaves in their cooking for example to use it as a holder for other ingredients in Thai Miang Kam or as a layering with banana leaves in the Malaysian Peranakan dish called otak-otak.
People sometimes mistake the word “Betel Nut” as a whole where the Betel leaf and Betel nut are used. Actually it is a combination of a few totally different items which are the Betel leaf, Areca nut (which is similar to a palm tree that grows mostly in Asian countries and grows in large clumps of nuts on the tree), lime paste and some people also use bits of cut lime with the rind. This method used by my friend’s mother is a little different. In her basket is an assortment of utensils and a collection of shelled Areca nuts, freshly plucked Betel leaves and some lime paste.
Also in her little basket is a small metal pestle and mortar that she will use to crush the items into a paste to make it easier for her to chew. She takes one large sized leaf, spreads a little white lime paste and cuts several pieces of nuts into smaller pieces before wrapping it all in the Betel leaf.
She then places the small leaf parcel into the pestle and using the mortar slowly pounds on the items. She turns the items around in the pestle and continues pounding until she has a nice red mixture. She then uses a small spoon to scoop out the mixture and start chewing.
The Betel nut mixture when chewed produces a lot of saliva which is the reason why Betel nut chewers tend to spit out the excess saliva while chewing. Chewing on the Betel nut leaves also give a euphoric sensation and tends to numb the mouth while chewing. Nowadays there are fewer Betel nut chewers and it is a tradition of the older generation. When this generation is gone, so will most of the Betel nut chewers.
If you have a chance to see this, you are most fortunate to be able to observe and remember this age old tradition!