The Betel Nut

by Barbara Steinberg

Narcotics cover the world and time. Some have become licit, as they accessorize common ceremonies and social interactions.

In tropical South Asia, the Areca Catechu palm tree fruits the betel nut and only grows near the sea. [1]. They include a variety of alkaloids, including arecoline, which can bring a sense of well-being, euphoria, alertness, and increased stamina.[2] The nuts are wrapped in the fresh leaves of the Piper betlé (betel-pepper) tree, which is indigenous through the Indian Malay region and grows in hot, shady areas. [3]

The other essential ingredient is an inorganic compound made from corals or sea shells that wash up from fresh-water rivers. They are smashed in the courtyards of lime kilns. The kilns are then heated with wood to temperatures of 1000-1100 centigrade, which creates calcium hydroxide. When water is added, the substance becomes slaked lime (picture 1). [4]

The pieces of areca are wrapped inside a betel leaf, which has been smeared with slaked lime, among other ingredients. Some recipes use tobacco, which adds another alkaloid, nicotine, as well as other spices, such as cardamon, clove, anis, fresh or old copra, ginger, or a wine leaf called “ratabulath.” Local recipes determine which elements are wrapped in the betel leaf, which is known as a quid.[4]

Chewing betel nut quids produce mastication, or extra saliva, which is warm, aromatic, and bitter. The saliva contains a stimulating effect and turns red, staining teeth. The saliva is usually swallowed, but sometimes it is also spat into a spittoon or onto the ground.

In Sri Lanka, a British surgeon described a servant preparing a royal betel nut. The king had his pick of blends, which he combined with different aromatic spices, which meant that betel nut quids had different flavors. Each king had a servant, whose duty it was to supply the king with his favorite preparations. [4]

Betel was also used in ceremonies. such as bathing a newborn boy in an arena-nut vessel as well as marriage ceremonies. In “Ceylon: A Pictorial Survey of the Peoples and Arts,” Dr. Raghavan says that “chewing the betel … comes at the finish of every meal. It is indeed a habit so inherent in the villages, that there is scarcely a waking moment when he is not without the quid of betel in his mouth.

The utensils needed to create this narcotic were held in elaborate boxes, displayed on trays, held in the compartments of animal-shaped boxes, or were carried in small colored pouches. Areca-nut cutters resembled a nutcracker with an inserted sharp blade. Lime containers had a hole for the insertion of a spatula. The user put it in and out of the container, so he could use the lime to coat the betel leaf.

Before recent scientific studies, the leaf was known as an aphrodisiac and an antiseptic for bad breath. The extra saliva was also thought to improve digestion, clear the voice and improve flatulence. [4]

Here are some examples of betel nut containers:

From late 18th Century Sri Lanka, Michael Backman shows a tortoiseshell box with parcel-gilt silver mounts engraved with an elaborate floral design using a technique called “tendon veda.” [5] The box fittings mimic the “abherunda pakshaya” pendant, worn by a Sinhalese woman (pictures 2 and 3).

From the Dayak people in the Sarawak region of Northern Borneo, Malaysia, Backman also shows a 19th Century brass betel box shaped like a hornbill. A worm has wound its way around his beak. The wings lift to reveal containers for ingredients in the betel quid recipe, and the back tail has traces of slaked lime (picture 4).

Traveling to late 18th Century Southern China to the Qing Dynasty under the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799). Chewing the betel quid was especially popular among the upper classes. Sotheby’s shows a cutter with rhinoceros handle. It is carved with a bridled horse, whose reins lead down the side to a small monkey and two bees (picture 5). [6]

Made in Java, Thomas Murray shows this iron cutter is in the shape of a man with a sword, wearing a head covering. It has gold inlay and is dated 17th – 19th Century (picture 6). [7]

The Musée du Quai Branly shows artist of the Gond people, Bastar district, Chhattisgarh state, Central India, who made this bronze cup-shaped areca nut scissors in the shape of a horse and his rider in the early 20th century (picture 7). [8]

The Metropolitan Museum shows a lime container from the Iatmul people of the Middle Sepik River Region, Papua New Guinea. It is a bamboo cylinder topped with a totemic animal or supernatural being and has a hole for the spatula (picture 8). [9] An example of a lime spatula from Massim master carver Mutaga from Dagodagoisu village, Suau Province, Papua New Guinea also resides at the Metropolitan. (picture 9) [10]

Recently,“researchers at Boston University Medical Center have linked the almost epidemic proportion of oral cancer in the Far East to the habitual chewing of betel nut, according to a report in the April edition of Nature Magazine.” [11,12] It begs the question “Do we mind risking death from something that is socially accepted and gives us pleasure?


1. Crawfurd, J. “On the History and Migration of Cultivated Narcotic Plants in Reference to Ethnology.” Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London 7 (1869): page 89.

2. Barceloux, Donald G. “Medical Toxicology of Drug Abuse: Synthesized Chemicals and Psychoactive Plants” page 784

3. Bissa, Sharad, Dimple Songara, and A. Bohra. “Traditions in Oral Hygiene: Chewing of Betel (Piper Betle L.) Leaves.” Current Science 92, no. 1 (2007): 26-28.

4. Charpentier, C.-J. “The Use of Betel in Ceylon.” Anthropos 72, no. 1/2 (1977): page 111.

5. Coomaraswamy, A.K., Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, Pantheon Books, 1956.






11. “Oral Cancer Linked to Chewing of Betel Nut.” HSMHA Health Reports 86, no. 8 (1971): 692-93.

12. Warnakulasuriya, Saman, Chetan Trivedy, and Timothy J. Peters. “Areca Nut Use: An Independent Risk Factor For Oral Cancer: The Health Problem Is Under-Recognised.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 324, no. 7341 (2002): 799-800.

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