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Traveling in India: Betel Nut Adventures

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.

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Traveling in India: Food Culture

Okay, maybe that title is slightly misleading. When I was in India I ended up with dysentery so bad that I couldn’t eat much at all. But I do remember some of the things I ate or chewed upon.

I was in Meghalaya for a month and the Khasis tend to eat their food fairly plainly. Rice, chicken, beef, with these green, little bullet peppers on the side. Begung was one particular dish I remember (and the spelling is more phonetic than anything else). It was a dark green leafy vegetable chopped into small pieces and fermented or aged with something savory. Think Asian sauerkraut but completely different. They also made a beef jerky over the fire used to distill the local rice drink, kyat. This was like drinking very very green saki.

Khasis also eat a lot of boiled eggs. This got to be too much for us on the second day. At one point we got takeout. There aren’t many restaurants and takeout involved getting some kind of noodle dish served in a banana leaf. All biodegradable but now days they put those dishes wrapped in banana into a plastic bag for carrying and once you’ve finished eating you toss the leaf and the bag. It was a sad thing to see that Western culture was encroaching all the bad aspects there as well.

The one other item in Megahlaya that I tried wasn’t really a food item. It would go more into the realm of entertainment, or a side, or like smoking. This was kwai, or betel nut. The Khasis eat theirs fairly pure. You take a peppercorn leave–it’s actually a betel leaf though they called it peppercorn because of the peppery taste, put a dab of lime paste on it (this is not made from fruit). Then you take chopped up betel nut (or areca nut, which is similar to nutmeg in hardness and texture) and fold the leaf over the the ingredients. Then you chew and chew and chew. It’s very hard and takes the lime and the leaf to help break it down.

Betel nut is also a slight stimulant (and has been found to be a carcinogen). It tended to make me turn beet red, which everyone found quite funny. I didn’t notice more than a little rush. Many Khasis eat it often and it tends to stain the spit and therefore the lips red. One woman called it Khasi lipstick. Betel nut is eaten throughout India but it may be sugared, have candy sprinkles, spices or a host of other items to sweeten it up as it is pretty harsh and bitter. In India it is called paan.

Although I got into the habit of trying it in Meghalaya I didn’t continue in the rest of India because it was too sweet. Just as well since it is known for destroying gums and teeth because it is so hard. I remember being in some government buildings in India and seeing corners in halls stained red as if someone had been stabbed to death. People would just spit into the corners and it was never cleaned up.

Through the rest of India, I actually didn’t get a chance to try as much as the food as I would have liked. Dhal (a lentil stew) was common but I can’t eat lentils. And I also had dysentery, which prevented me trying many of the dishes I wanted. I do remember the yogurt being remarkably creamy and not bitter like it is here. You could get a salty or a fruit lassi, made from yogurt and they were a lot of what I survived on when I was very sick.

I’m afraid I never got to try curries and other local dishes. By the end of the two months I was too sick to remember much about the food, except to stay away from the Campa Cola, which was made in Italy but shipped to India because it was carcinogenic. What fun. It’s one regret, that I never got to try more foods while there, especially because I love spicy.

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