Betel Chewing Paraphenalia from Asia and the Pacific

Behind the Scenes

By: Adria H. Katz and Jennifer L. White

Originally Published in 1997

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Market in Phimai, Northeast Thailand. the three essential ingredients of the betel quid are presented for sale. Bags of red lime paste sit on the ground, while sprays of green areca nuts spill over the table above. A tray of betel pepper leaves is displayed directly in front of the vendor, and open bags of sliced dried areca nuts are arrayed on the table at left rear.
Market in Phimai, Northeast Thailand. the three essential ingredients of the betel quid are presented for sale. Bags of red lime paste sit on the ground, while sprays of green areca nuts spill over the table above. A tray of betel pepper leaves is displayed directly in front of the vendor, and open bags of sliced dried areca nuts are arrayed on the table at left rear.
(L) Betel server. Wood, iron nails, pigment. Northeast Thailand, late 19th-mid 20th century. Museum Object Number: 89-13-294. (R) Betel carrier. Brass, brass inlay; suspension chain missing. Southern Philippines, early 20th Century. Museum Object Number L-192-133
(L) Betel server. Wood, iron nails, pigment. Northeast Thailand, late 19th-mid 20th century. Museum Object Number: 89-13-294. (R) Betel carrier. Brass, brass inlay; suspension chain missing. Southern Philippines, early 20th Century. Museum Object Number L-192-133

From the east coast of Africa through South and Southeast Asia to the islands of Melanesia, wherever the areca palm (Area catechu) and the betel pepper vine (Per betle) grow, the fruit of the palm and the leaf of the vine are combined with slaked lime to form an astringent, mildly stimulating quid. According to local custom, other ingredients—tobacco, catachu, and a variety of spices such as cloves, cardamom, and ginger—may be added to enhance the effects of the chew and improve the flavor. A quid is formed by plac­ing sliced areca nut, betel leaf, and some lime in the side of the mouth to be sucked and chewed. A quid usu­ally lasts 15 to 30 minutes, after which it is spit out. The name of the betel leaf has come to be applied to the areca palm fruit, which is called betel nut, to the quid as a whole, and to the practice itself, which is called betel chewing.

Betel chewing induces a sense of well-being, freshens the breath and, to a certain extent, inhibits tooth decay. The most startling side effect, often noted  with disgust by European observers, is the copious pro­duction and constant spitting of blood-red saliva. Betel chewing combined with poor oral hygiene leads to gum disease and the loosening and loss of teeth. A height­ened incidence of cancer of the mouth has been observed in some betel chewing areas.

People have been chewing betel for over 2000 years. Where practiced, betel chewing has been an essential element in virtually all social interaction, from casual daily encounters to important ceremonial and rit­ual occasions. Now, the habit is gradually dying out, especially in cities. However, the practice still continues in many traditional betel areas and even in some over­seas Asian communities. Preserved and frozen areca nuts, freeze-dried betel leaves, and lime are available in Thai grocery stores in Philadelphia today.

Areca Nut Cutter: Before being added to the quid, the areca nut must is husked and the inner seed is sliced into small pieces. In India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, special hinged, single-bladed cutters are used for this purpose. Areca nut cutter. Iron. West Kalimantan (Borneo), collected 1897. Museum Object Number: P974
Areca Nut Cutter: Before being added to the quid, the areca nut must is husked and the inner seed is sliced into small pieces. In India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, special hinged, single-bladed cutters are used for this purpose. Areca nut cutter. Iron. West Kalimantan (Borneo), collected 1897. Museum Object Number: P974
Mortar and Pestle: Wherever betel is chewed, the associated complex of objects always includes martars and pestles. they are used by toothless people and people with poor teeth, who can no longer chew the betel quid, to mash the ingredients into a manageable paste. Betel mortar. Wood.  Museum Object Number: P1683A. Betel Pestle. Shell. Museum Object Number: P1684B. Both from Yap, Caroline Islands, collected 1903.
Mortar and Pestle: Wherever betel is chewed, the associated complex of objects always includes martars and pestles. they are used by toothless people and people with poor teeth, who can no longer chew the betel quid, to mash the ingredients into a manageable paste. Betel mortar. Wood. Museum Object Number: P1683A. Betel Pestle. Shell. Museum Object Number: P1684B. Both from Yap, Caroline Islands, collected 1903.
Lime Containers: Powdered lime for betel chewing is produced by calcining (burning) shells, coral, or limestone. It can be used in powdered form or mixed with water to make paste. in either case it is usuallycarried in a container with a closely fitting lid, from which it is either shaken or dipped out with a spatula or stick. (L) Lime container. Silver. Chiengmai, Thailand. 18th-early 20th Century. Museum Object Number: 95-21-1A,B. (R) Lime container. Bamboo, palm leaf midrib. Solomon Islands, early 20th century. Museum Object Number: P3413
Lime Containers: Powdered lime for betel chewing is produced by calcining (burning) shells, coral, or limestone. It can be used in powdered form or mixed with water to make paste. in either case it is usually carried in a container with a closely fitting lid, from which it is either shaken or dipped out with a spatula or stick. (L) Lime container. Silver. Chiengmai, Thailand. 18th-early 20th Century. Museum Object Number: 95-21-1A,B. (R) Lime container. Bamboo, palm leaf midrib. Solomon Islands, early 20th century. Museum Object Number: P3413
Lime spatulas: In the Massim culture distric of East Papua New Guinea, powdered lime is conveyed directly from the lime container to the mouth of the betel chewer. The museum has over 100 lime spatulas from this area, which is known for extraordinary decorative quality and variety of its carvings. (L) Lime Spatula, Wood, pigment. Trobriand Islands, early 20th century. Museum Object Number: P3046. (R) Lime Spatula. Wood, pigment. Woodlark Island, early 20th century. museum Object Number: P3055
Lime spatulas: In the Massim culture district of East Papua New Guinea, powdered lime is conveyed directly from the lime container to the mouth of the betel chewer. The museum has over 100 lime spatulas from this area, which is known for extraordinary decorative quality and variety of its carvings. (L) Lime Spatula, Wood, pigment. Trobriand Islands, early 20th century. Museum Object Number: P3046. (R) Lime Spatula. Wood, pigment. Woodlark Island, early 20th century. museum Object Number: P3055

Cite This Article

Katz, Adria H. and White, Jennifer L.. "Betel Chewing Paraphenalia from Asia and the Pacific." Expedition Magazine 39, no. 1 (March, 1997): -. Accessed April 24, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/betel-chewing-paraphenalia-from-asia-and-the-pacific/


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