Betel Nut

                                                 Betel Nut

Bloody Mary was chewing betel nut as early as 1949 when the musical “South Pacific” premiered.  She may have been chewing as early as 1947 when Michener’s book “Tales of the South Pacific,” on which the musical is based, was first published.  I became aware of this around 1951 when I, singing in the University of Oklahoma’s Men Glee Club, sang the wonderful men’s chorus “Bloody Mary” which revealed this juicy tidbit.  At the time, it didn’t much register with me.  In those times, Google was not available and heaven forbid that I should go to the Library to find out what this information could refer to.  Too much trouble for something that I supposed would never have meaning for me.  Wrong.

In 1963 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia I was to find out what chewing betel nut meant.  It is a nasty habit that many people had.  Betel nut is chewed for its effect as a mild stimulant; it could be compared to drinking a cup of coffee or smoking a cigarette.  It is also somewhat addictive and it is known to be a human carcinogen.  In Olustee, Oklahoma I was accustomed to people chewing tobacco and dipping snuff in the 30’s and 40’s but not on the scale of betel nut chewing in Malaysia. 

I believe that I first became aware of Malaysia’s betel nut chewing by seeing red splotches on the ground, primarily on sidewalks and roads.  These red splotches turned out to be betel nut spit.  Goodness!  I remember that Uncle Frank always carried around a can for his tobacco spitting – never spitting anywhere he wanted. 

My Hindu neighbors across the short causeway from my 3rd floor walk-up flat, invited me to their daughter’s second birthday celebration.  According to Hindu custom, on that day a child’s head is shaved and a celebratory dinner is served.

It was an exotic experience.  On a hot day, the daughter went from curly black to bald in less than five minutes; several curries with rice with assorted accompaniments were served to the men on banana leaves and were eaten with the right hand at the large table; and the women, eating on the floor, after having served the men.

All was very gemütlich, with a lot of interest being shown in me.  I was the curiosity – being called the European, a moniker that I was often given and to which I had ceased objecting.  What the hell, I preferred this to being called an orang puteh, which means white man.

Lime paste holders

After the meal, as the betel nut was being prepared, I was asked if I had ever chewed betel nut.  When I answered in the negative, all were unanimous is saying that I should try. 

Betel Nut Shaver


I watched as all men helped to prepare packets.  First, they laid out the betel leaf and spread it with a thin layer of lime paste made from the lime that you use in the garden (see picture to left for examples of containers used to hold the lime). This was then topped with the betel or acrea nut pieces that they had shaved into thin slices (see shaver in picture).  It was then finished by wrapping it into neat little packets.  The nut was about the size of a nutmeg.

Ready for chewing

The rest is simple.  You put it into your mouth and start chewing.  In many tales, everyone lives happily ever after – but I didn’t.  It tasted like a leaf and is bitter and awful.  Not wanting to bring shame on myself as well as on the Peace Corps, I pasted a smile on my face and tucked it in the side of my jaw, thinking that I would be ignored.  But I was being carefully watched and someone would say “you have to chew it!”  I would chew it awhile and try tucking it away again; however, again, I was corrected by “you have to chew it!”  Nothing to do but just chew and suffer. 

Presently, I made a mistake by making eye contact with my host.  I had my pasted-on smile and he gave a big smile back.  His mouth looked very much like the picture shown here.  Oh dear!  I made my profound excuses, left abruptly, hurried the few feet to my flat and was sick.

The exotic afternoon contained one too many exotic experiences.