The Art of Chewing Betel

Ni Wayan Murni

The Art of Chewing Betel

The Times, Lombok

November – December 2007


When I went to London I saw South Pacific. I loved Bali Hai but was really surprised when the men sang:
Bloody Mary is the girl I love.
Bloody Mary is the girl I love.
Bloody Mary is the girl I love.
Now ain’t that too damn bad!Her skin is tender as Dimaggio’s glove.
Her skin is tender as Dimaggio’s glove.
Her skin is tender as Dimaggio’s glove.
Now ain’t that too damn bad!Bloody Mary’s chewin’ betel nuts.
She is always chewin’ betel nuts.
Bloody Mary’s chewin’ betel nuts.
And she don’t use Pepsodent!
Now ain’t that too damn bad!

My grandmother did it, my mother did it and my aunt did it. They were not alone. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica a tenth of the World’s population did it. It goes back at least 2,000 years and in the old days everyone was at it, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, peasant and royalty. It’s not practised much or even known about much in the West. Now ain’t that too damn bad! But it’s very common, almost universal, here in Asia, or at least it was.

Betel container, Cambodia

Betel container, Cambodia

Every morning my grandmother used to tear off a leaf from the betel pepper tree in her garden, smear it with lime paste and top it off with tasty thin slices of the areca nut. Those are the three basic ingredients. Some people, and it varies from country to country, add cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, coriander or dry ginger to taste. Tobacco is a recent addition. Then you roll the whole thing up into a bite-size quid and place it in your mouth between teeth and cheek and start chewing. Very soon your saliva turns bright red and becomes copious. You can’t swallow it and that is why until recently the pavements in Asian countries used to be splattered with blotches of red spittle. Of course, it was undignified for members of royalty to spit and they had spittoons.

Lime container, Thailand

Lime container, Thailand

With the introduction of cigarettes men began to stop chewing betel, at least in Bali but also in other places. It was actually made illegal in Thailand in 1945 and now it tends to be older women who indulge. My generation don’t usually chew betel and it’s a habit that’s dying out. But I do love the equipment and collect betel sets. I have been collecting the sets and implements comprised in the sets for ages and from various countries. Each country has interesting variations. I have put some of them on my on line shop at www.murnis.com and also sell them from my shop in Ubud.

Betel container, Cambodia

Betel container, Cambodia

We all call it betel nut chewing but that is strictly incorrect because it’s the areca nut from the palm family and not the betel nut which is chewed. We should call it betel chewing. Before describing the implements I should explain why people chew betel. There are several reasons. The main one is social: offering a quid of betel is a sign of hospitality. Another reason is that red lips are a sign of beauty.

Betel was especially useful before the introduction of lipstick. It was also thought to be a cure for bad breath and to make people strong. It lessens the appetite which is helpful when food is short and undoubtedly it produces a mild high and is addictive. Its central role in Balinese culture is evident in the use of the three main betel ingredients in almost all offerings and ceremonies, the colours symbolising the colours of the three main Hindu gods. The areca nut symbolises Brahma, the Creator, betel leaves symbolise Wisnu, the Preserver and lime symbolises Siwa, the Destroyer.

Betel container, Sumatra

Betel container, Sumatra

The best betel equipment was owned by royalty, often made of gold, and was part of the standard royal regalia for rulers in South East Asia. Much time and effort was put into their creation and beautiful, artistic pieces were the result. A person’s standing was clear from the materials and decorations of his betel set. Betel sets were exchanged as gifts between foreign rulers and given to loyal retainers as rewards for services rendered.

Betel basket, Sumatra

Betel basket, Sumatra

The most basic set would just be a geometric receptacle, such as a box, tray or basket, divided into compartments to hold the ingredients and equipment. It would be made of local materials, such as bamboo, rattan or wood, and would be elegant as well as functional.

Betel leaf holder, Thailand

Betel leaf holder, Thailand

The most elaborate sets are hand-made containers for each individual ingredient. In Thailand there are gorgeous silver containers for betel leaves in the shape of a leaf. In Laos they are shaped as a horn of plenty. Local materials are used – silver in the Shan States and Thailand, lacquer in Burma, horn in Sumatra and beads in Timor. Perhaps the greatest variety in the region is in the lime containers – wonderful dark clay bird-shaped containers from Cambodia, pots with a hole in the top from Vietnam, and bronze stupa-shaped containers from Thailand. Where metals are used, they are often skilfully engraved, especially the small elephant, turtle and bird boxes from Cambodia.

Betel cutter, Bali

Betel cutter, Bali

The implements are equally beautiful. The range of cutters for the nut is mind-boggling. There are iron and steel cutters with handles of gold, silver, bronze or brass in wild, fantastic shapes from India and in the shape of birds or horses from Bali. Sturdy brass mortar and pestles were made to pulverize the nut for toothless people like my grandmother. Spatulas with cute horn handles of seated figures from East New Guinea were fashioned to smear the lime on the leaf. Royal spittoons were made in gold and heavily decorated. It’s polite to spit in a spittoon. I used to live opposite the royal palace of Ubud and remember that a servant would bring up the rear of a royal procession carrying betel nut equipment in a bag. It ain’t too damn bad!

Murni
Ubud, Bali

Ni Wayan Murni is the owner of Murni’s Warung, the first real restaurant in Ubud, Bali. Murni’s Warung Shop, Murni’s Villas and Murni’s Houses. She has been dealing in antiques for over 30 years in Bali and exhibited part of her collection in the United States in February 2007. Her web site www.murnis.com is Bali’s leading on-line resource centre. She is co-author of a new book ‘Secrets of Bali, Fresh Light of the Morning of the World’ by Jonathan Copeland.