A chewable curio: The Sri Lankan Betel Leaf
Discovered at a train station cafe in central Sri Lanka.
Betel juice, betel juice, betel juice; is what you will get after chewing on this little curio. You may have also seen people around Asia in passing with bright red stained teeth after indulging in this leafy hardcore version of gum. A tradition that is rumoured to date back as early as 340 B.C.
Purchased out of pure ignorance. An impulse buy, but one I could allow myself at 20 pence. Was it a type of food? Was it a good luck talisman? Who knew. Unravelling the outer Sri Lankan school paper it was encased in and the layers of leaves, I found different mysterious things tucked inside each leaf. I was still non the wiser.
I was going to need an explanation. The shop keep explained through the art of mime that it was a type of chewing material. A chewing tobacco of sorts, he hurriedly gathered the different sections. Behold: the betel leaf. A stimulant, that can cause dizziness. Essentially it’s like eating a cigarette and spitting it out before you swallow it. Also known as pan or paan, and mainly used in SE Asia, the little mysterious sections contain betel leaf, areca nut, slacked lime, and sometimes tobacco.
Directions for use: Unravel. Take a leaf, spread it, cover with pieces of areca nut, clove, tobacco, sweets/spices, pop in your mouth, chew, and try not to vomit as the bottom of the ashtray taste unfurls around your pallet. Like a dirty oral hug.
A report in Ceylon today explains, “Betel is widely grown all over Sri Lanka and the leaf mainly used for chewing with areca nut, slaked lime, tobacco and some other ingredients. The betel chewing habit in Sri Lanka dates back to 340 B.C. It is valued both as a mild stimulant and for its medicinal properties.” It can also cause cancer, and an extremely unpleasant after taste.