The Beauties of Betel Nut

I could tell you that the trade in betel nut is now worth a staggering US$3.6 billion a year in Taiwan alone.

I could tell you that there are estimated to be around 2.8 million chewers, representing roughly a quarter of the entire male population.

I could tell you that there are approximately 100,000 kiosks throughout Taiwan and that, despite the enormous revenue they generate, the industry is utterly unregulated and is still taxed at a normal rate.

I could easily tell you all of this.

It might even be interesting to deal with the dangers of the habit and the fact that chewers are 28 times more likely to develop oral cancer and that in central Taihsi (台西) Township, for example, an average of 2,374 people per 100,000 die of oral cancer every single year.

I could tell you all this and much, much more.

But it’s all been done.

Instead, I thought it would be far more interesting to have someone go out and actually do some groundwork on behalf of all those who have ever been disgusted by it or wondered what in the world the attraction was.

The first thing I did was visit one of my local betel nut owners. He emerged from a back room, looking highly suspicious of this foreigner and accompanying translator.

It was evidently very much out of the ordinary and he was initially pretty brusk. However, within a short time he was veritably spitting information at me through his mouthful. And what a wealth of it he turned out to be.

I discovered that are generally three types of nut to be had. The first is the one he termed “for beginners” and was, he claimed, the most popular that was sold at his store. It consisted of a split nut with quite a fair dose of a very deep red paste, topped off with something I was surprised to find actually smelled attractive, having a somewhat citrus scent to it.

The second kind of nut was smaller and wrapped in a leaf. The nuts were smaller and there were therefore two to a bundle. These were reported to be a little sweet and very much on the spicy side. They were, as the first kind, sold in silvery boxes.

The final kind, however – the “real” betel nut that is primarily chewed in central and southern Taiwan – was more expensive than the other two and yet far simpler in design. There was no box, only a cheap plastic “baggy”, and they looked incredibly plain, consisting of a bare nut covered in a seemingly bland leaf.

Whereas the previous two kinds smelled rather good and appeared reasonably appetising, this third kind simply smelled like any other entirely inedible plant might. He said this final one was reserved for the hardcore chewers. From what I saw I didn’t much fancy it.

Forgetting the nuts themselves, it was interesting to get behind the scenes of this industry for a second. He informed us that he required a licence but that it was classed as nothing other than a common fruit by the government. It’s greatly suprising but true, and could go a step towards understanding why what is essentially a form of mild drug is so incredibly widespread.

As a fruit, it is not taxed as tobacco or alcohol are, and the official controls regarding its use are non-existent. A licence is needed before a store can be opened, but it isn’t difficult to gain and essentially means very little in practice.

The final mystery that he proved able to solve was that of why so few women chew the stuff while men are so commonly seen helpfully decorating the sides of the roads and pavement.

The answer was short, simple and believable. “Men don’t care about how they look. Women do.” Well, that was that then.

The second leg involved biting the bullet, as it were, and really getting to grips with the nut itself. In this adventure I enlisted the help of a friendly construction worker who was initially as curious about me as I was of him.

As soon as he realised what it was I was interested in, he happily jumped down from the truck and began to guide me through the world of betel nut chewing. It was at this point that I was beginning to think, “Do I really want to do this?”

As previously instructed, I tried the “beginners” nut first. It was, to put it mildly, a taste explosion.

I could feel the paste immediately invade and overwhelm every single taste bud. It was tangy, fiercely so, and I have to admit that most of the paste was soon to be found forming a very red line on the pavement next to my feet.

Having got beyond the shock of the initial taste, though, the taste of the nut itself began to make its way through. It was bitter in the extreme and not particularly pleasant, a little like what I imagine the taste of chewing an acorn to be like.

It brought forth an unexpected amount of juice from my glands and, not wanting to swallow it, I had soon made a fair amount of red, gooey mess.

Added to this, I was offered one of the typical drinks, called “Baulidabe”, that is apparently now growing in popularity over “Whisbih”, the more traditional, mildly alcoholic medicinal beverage.

The one given me was mixed with coconut juice and was actually very easy on the palette. Having been somewhat fortified by this small dose of Dutch courage, I moved onto round two.

This was much sweeter than the first but, as the betel nut store owner had said, far more spicey.

However, having already been initiated to the taste by the first and feeling more than a touch warmed up by both it and the Baulidabe and Whisbih (which I’d already now opened), it wasn’t such a shock. Although I can’t exactly say it went down a treat, it wasn’t really all that bad.

The third, on the other hand, was truly disgusting. From the first moment it entered my mouth to the second I spat it out, it was horrible.

It tasted far stronger than the others and there were no spices or other flavours to make it more manageable. It was simply the chewing of a nut in a leaf. The colour of the spit leaving my mouth was far redder than before.

It is, I have to say, something I may not choose to do again.

But what did it feel like? Try to imagine, if you will, the feeling you might get if you drank a cup of strong coffee and then went for a fairly swift jog.

This might sound simply awful but bear with me a moment. I say jog because of the unusually warm glow that I felt welling up from inside of me. It was quite nice, actually.

There were also stimulating effects that weren’t all that strong but were hardly non-existent either. It made me feel more awake, more alert and my pulse seemed to quicken.

I guess it wasn’t quite as profound as I’d expected it to be but, I must admit, I didn’t dare swallow too much of the red spit that my chewing instructor was quite happily gulping down.

Plus I only managed three nuts.

And I was nearly sick on the third.

The final stage of my little experiment involved asking my red-toothed friend why he so enjoyed betel nut.

There were essentially two reasons. The first incorporates the feelings just metioned. He said it was something he associated exclusively with work and didn’t chew at home. There is Gauliang added to the concoction and it is this, he told me, that gives the warm feeling that makes those icy Taiwanese winter days that much more bearable.

He was, admittedly, red enough in the face to be described as positively radiant. He also mentioned that it made him feel “stronger” and gave me a proud showing of his scrawny arm.

But, all sarcasm aside, I can now understand how the slightly mind-dulling and body-invigorating effects would help to get through a day of manual labour or boredom at the wheel of a long-haul drive. I can see that now and even empathise a little.

Just a shame it’s kind of a dirty habit.

The second reason is far more enthralling. It’s highly tied up in what it means to be Taiwanese.

“Foreigners can’t do it”, he said with a laugh but, as always, there’s a degree of truth to what we joke about. It’s a way in which Taiwanese differ markedly from those on the mainland.

It’s more likely than not chewed in higher proportions of people, such as those in central and southern Taiwan, who prefer to speak Taiwanese to Mandarin.

It’s associated in many minds with what it means to be a “Tai-Ke”. It’s also a friendship thing and is shared in the same way that cigarettes are between smokers who are forced to brave the cold for their nicotine fix.

It shows affiliation and gains acceptance. As with smoking, not everyone chews betel nut, and those who do appear to be joined by some kind of unspoken bond.

The man I talked to started chewing because, as I myself did with smoking so many years ago, for everyone around him it was normal.

And did he worry about contracting cancer?

At this he really seemed to stop and ponder for a moment. It was evidently something that he knew about.

After thinking about it for a little while, he turned around and said with a smile, “Well, if it really does cause cancer, then half of the men in Taiwan would come down with it! It can’t be that bad…”

Of course not.

It never is.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

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