Betelnut - history

Betelnut palms originally grew wild in Southeast Asia, perhaps in the Philippines or Malaysia. They were brought to the Indian subcontinent by humans in prehistoric times. The betelnut palm is now cultivated across the Asian tropics as a cash crop, as well as in almost every village garden. It is used for its seeds which are chewed as a stimulant.

Origins

A watercolour painting showing a row of shops in Poona India. One of the shops is selling paan.
Image: Paan shop in central India.


The betelnut palm is only known in cultivation, and its exact origin is not known. It is likely to have evolved in Southeast Asia where it is thought to be of very ancient cultivation and where diversity of the genus Areca is greatest. The chewing of the seeds is an ancient tradition for millions of people across South and Southeast Asia. The practise is known as 'tamboul' in India and may have originated in the region of Vietnam and Malaysia. From here it was probably first introduced to India.

South Asian history

Betelnut's origins in India cannot be precisely dated but it has been mentioned in ancient literature and texts for almost 2,000 years. In a Tamil classic story, Silappadikaram, the heroine feeds her husband with betel chews. Betelnuts also feature in ancient traditional medicine. Ayurvedic medical texts dating back 2000 years discuss the ingredients of betel quids, and Sanskrit writings list different types of betel quid.

More precise references to betelnut chewing date from the Gupta period in the 5th century AD. By this time, it appears to have been a widespread practice.

Betelnut chewing is cited as one of eight enjoyments, or bhogas, of royal life in the 11th century text called Manasollasa or Splendour of Thought. It was mentioned by Marco Polo in the 13th century, and the 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta wrote of how it was part of all palace meals in the Delhi Sultanate.

One of the earliest surviving Indian cookbooks, dating from about 1500, was produced for the Sultan of Mandu. It shows him supervising the preparation of elaborate betelnut paan. In the 15th century, a Persian ambassador called Abdul Razzak visited the south of India and wrote about the invigorating effects of betelnut chewing. By the 17th century, Indian writings noted the best palm varieties to use, and where they were grown.

As betelnut chewing evolved, so have the accessories used to make betel quids. They include fine boxes and seed cutters.