Betel nut in Assam, India

Last week I tried opium tea and a beedie. Today it was betel nut…Craig making paan © Emma Field

Betel nut is the stuff that turns your teeth and gums bright red, and is responsible for the splashes of what looks like blood on the pavements across India and Southeast Asia.

Calling it ‘betel nut’ is somewhat misleading. The leaf that wraps around the nut is betel leaf, but the nut itself is areca nut, which, to confuse matters further, isn’t actually a nut but a drupe (a type of fruit with the flesh surrounding a shell containing the seed).

It was offered to me after a meal with a family in the Tai Phakial village, 80km from Dibrugarh. The village is a small community of about 700 people; their ancestors emigrated from Thailand via Burma during the Ahom period (about 150 years ago) and today’s population still has more in common with Southeast Asia than the rest of India.

Betel nut is used as a digestive and plays a major role in social situations across Asia and the South Pacific. It’s also a psychoactive drug. It acts as a mild stimulant, antiseptic and breath freshener, especially when combined with other herbs such as cloves and cardamom. Some users also add a little tobacco, which makes it more addictive.

The leaf, nut and a white substance, lime, were presented to us separately on a gifting plate and we made our own paan, following our guide Uday’s example. Simply dab a bit of lime of the leaf, take a slice of the nut, wrap it in the leaf, pop it all in your mouth and “masticate”.

The leaf tasted pretty good but the overall sensation was of bitterness. The nut was much harder than I expected and was harder to break down. It was like crunching on a soft rock. As for the effects – I felt a bit hot across my neck and shoulders and my tongue went numb. I also felt more alert, and to my hosts’ amusement, went red and started sweating prifusely. After a few minutes the world seemed brighter and over-exposed – my pupils must have been massively dilated! – and I needed to sit down. It was rather like drinking an espresso (I’m not good with caffeine…) but a whole lot more exotic. Afterwards, the ladies of the family dressed me up in their clothes and, thinking about it, I probably was much more relaxed in that situation than I would have been otherwise!

It’s not something I’m going to take it up as a habit though; it has a carcinogenic effect and regular chewing can lead to oral cancer. And, unless the punched-in-the-mouth effect ever becomes in vogue (it could happen – heroin chic did), red teeth just aren’t a good look.

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