Indian people and many people of other Asian countries eat betel nut in one form or another. It is a hard oval nut that looks an awful lot like nutmeg. It’s true name is the areca nut, and it is almost always eaten with the betel leaf, part of the pepper family and therefore slightly peppery in taste. A special knife must be used to cut the nut because it’s like hardened wood when dry. Imagine trying to cut nutmeg. The nut, cut into small pieces, is placed on a betel leaf, along with lime paste, which is all rolled together and then chewed.
I first encountered the betel nut in Meghalaya. The Khasi people, like many other Asian people, chew this daily. It is called kwai in Meghalaya and the Khasis chew it in a fairly pure form. I imagine that it was something like smoking long before those countries ever had cigarettes. One Khasi woman smiled at me with her red lips and teeth and called it Khasi lipstick. Indeed in some of the Asian cultures it’s been seen as a sign of beauty. The red comes from a combination of the lime and the nut. Everywhere in India, even in government buildings, I would find corners stained red as if someone had been butchered. But this was just the spittle from chewing the nut. India’s idea of clean was much different than that of my western sensibilities.
At the time I was told that the leaf and the lime were needed to break down the hardness of the nut. Some Khasis swallowed the kwai after chomping away on it, while others would spit out the juices. In India proper they call it paan and often mix it with sugars and other spices, making it a sweet concoction.
For the longest time (I was in Meghalaya a month) I just watched everyone chewing it. My friend started to get back in the habit though she didn’t do it in Canada. And a good thing too. Habitual use of betel nut cause severe damage to the gums, eroding them down to the roots of teeth. Not to mention, recent studies have shown that there are fairly high carcinogenic properties in the areca nut. Many places also combine it with tobacco, increasing the carcinogens even more.
Meghalaya was interesting to explore during the days but during the evenings we all just sat around. Hanocia’s mother ran a bar and besides the one drink that was served, and the beef jerky, a lot of people chewed kwai. I finally asked to try it one night and popped a small piece with lime and wrapped in the pepper leaf into my mouth. I think I suffered severe pucker power from the caustic aspects of the lime paste and had to take some sugar to counteract it. I also did something that doesn’t happen to the Khasis. I turned beet red.
The areca nut is supposed to have mild narcotic properties that can sharpen clarity. How this works when one is drinking is more a mystery I think. Coupled with the pepper leaf and the lime, it heated me up. The Khasis sitting around thought it pretty funny to watch me chewing this. I did get into the hang of trying it, working past the bitterness and tasting the flavors of peppery woodiness. I probably chewed kwai for a week or two.
When I went back to Calcutta I bought some paan. There they have a collection of confections to be added. But I was used to the pure taste and didn’t like the sugary sweetness. In fact, Indian sweets in general were far too sweet for my palate, partly because of the use of rose water. So I tried a few varieties of paan, served in cones of pepperleaf but couldn’t develop a taste for it. It’s just as well too as there are many diseases and cancers of the mouth associated with long-term use, not to mention the hardness alone can damage teeth.
So I gave up my betel nut adventures and passed on the betel juice that gives alluring red lips to its users.