Betelnut - stimulant

Somewhere between a quarter and a tenth of the world's population from east Africa to Polynesia chew betelnut for its stimulating properties.

Betel paan

The most basic betel chew, or paan, consists of the sliced nut or supari, wrapped with slivers of lime (calcium hydroxide) in leaves of the betel pepper vine, together with some catechu (a vegetable extract from an acacia tree). For a more elaborate chew other aromatic condiments would be included. For a stronger effect, a twist of tobacco is frequently utilised in a plain chew. All the ingredients combine to stain the saliva red and give a red tinge to the lips and mouth. It has an energising effect and is often used to stave off tiredness. It has also become part of a ritual symbolising gracious living.

A photograph of sliced betelnut seeds from Kew's Economic Botany Collection.
Image: Sliced betelnut seeds.

Betelnuts play an important role in south Asia. The fresh or dried endosperm of seeds of the betelnut palm is chewed alone or in combination with a leaf of betel pepper (Piper betle L.), lime paste and catechu, which is a scarlet and astringent extract made from boiling chips of wood of the betelnut palm (Davidson). Other ingredients may be added to the little package, known as a betel quid, including tobacco, palm sugar and various spices such as cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and clove (Syzygium aromaticum). The rich assortment of paraphernalia involved in making up betel mixtures include receptacles for each of the separate ingredients - mortars, dishes, spittoons and cutters for the betelnuts.

The mixture is also taken after meals to sweeten the breath. Chewing the quid increases the production of saliva, which is blood red in colour, and gastric juices and so is believed to aid digestion. After chewing, the quid is spat out.

There can be up to thirteen ingredients, including camphor, copra, pepper, betelnut, cardamom, cloves, musk, lime and catechu.