Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat in Cambodia
the world's largest religious monument built in the 12th century
now a world heritage site
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History of

Betel Nut Chewing 

Betel nut chewing originated in Southern Asia where the tropical climate is conducive to growing Areca nut trees and betel vines. Since prehistoric times, it has been embedded in the traditions of South-East Asian countries including Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. It is said to have spread to other communities in Madagascar, Papua New Guinea and the West Indies. Although it is considered by the people in all these countries to be something of great value to their culture, some Westerners find this practice strange, unhygienic and ugly. 

Betel Nut Ingredients
Although people call it slar malou’or ‘betel nut’, this is an abreviation as its core elements consist of three main traditional components:

  1. Areca nut (1st photo below is fresh areca nut and 2nd photo the dried version)
  2. Betel leaf or piper betle (last photo below)
  3. Lime – (slaked lime is produced from limestone or by burning sea shells or coral stones; adding water to turn it into a paste. It is available in white or pink colours)

           Areca_Nut_-_Thumbnail        Dried_Areca_Nut_-_thumbnail    Betel_Leaf_-_thumbnail

There are additional ingredients which are used mainly to imply status. The aim of these ingredients is to also give a pleasant aroma to the chew and to enhance its taste. These include:

  1. Copra (The dried white flesh of the coconut from which coconut oil is extracted)
  2. Cinnamon
  3. Cardamom
  4. Clove
  5. Nutmeg
  6. Dried ginger 
  7. Tobacco

How to Assemble a Quid or a Ball of Betel Nut
From faint memory of seeing my grand-mother preparing it, this is how a quid is made. Take a betel leaf, smear the middle of it with a pea-sized piece of lime paste or add about half-a-teaspoon of lime powder. Then place half or a quarter of one fresh areca nut in the middle (or two slices of the dried nut if using the dried version). Finally, fold in both of the long sides of the betel leaf to cover the nut, and roll it up into a ball.  If using the additional ingredients, just add them (apart from the tobacco) to the ball as needed before rolling. Then pop it into your mouth and start chewing. If using tobacco, this should be rolled into a small ball about a thumbnail size, and will be placed in the mouth somewhere between the teeth and the lips. Once the tobacco ball becomes moist, its flavour infuses with that of the chew which brings the overall taste to another level – a kick, as they say!

Benefits of Chewing Betel Nut
I remember being told by my grand-mother that it was good to chew betel nuts but she did not elaborate what exactly the benefits were. So, I made a few phone calls to relatives in Cambodia and did some research. The many benefits are as follows: 

  1. According to Chou Ta-Kuan (Zhou Daguan), a member of a Chinese mission to Angkor at the end of the thirteenth century, people chewed betel nut for a practical reason – preventing belching after meals. Some even believe that betel leaf contains medicinal properties which could be used as a cure for a number of illnesses including indigestion, worms, stomach ailments and infections. Some research suggests that betel leaves can have immune boosting capacities. It is also credited that, if chewing betel nut, after the teeth have been cleaned, it could protect the gums and teeth.

  2. Betel nut has symbolical roles. It is present at nearly all religious ceremonies and festivals in most countries in Southeast Asia. For example, it plays a super-star role in Khmer wedding ceremonies. (please read story of ‘Areca Nut Tree and Betel Vine’ on  the Folk Tales page). For example, a wedding would not be a wedding without the offering of two boxes of slar malou’ or ‘betel nut’ by the groom’s family to the bride’s family. Acceptance of the ‘betel nut’ signifies agreement to the proposal being discussed, hence, the ‘See Slar Pchorp Peak or ‘Chewing betel nut to seal the agreement’ ceremony in Khmer wedding.

  3. Betel nut chewing generates social affability produced by sharing a quid with friends. In Cambodia, it is not difficult to see the obvious enjoyment on the faces of a group of elderly women sitting around a betel box; likewise, friendly conversations and laugher can be heard from men relaxing near a rice-field during breaks whilst sharing betel nut. According to ‘Chbap Srey’ or ‘code of conduct for women’ in Cambodia, offering a quid to someone is a mark of hospitality (it is like a cup of tea or coffee in the West), thus, a good way of making friends. A proverb also teaches: ‘A quid of betel nut is the prelude to all conversation’.
  4.  
  5. For cosmetic reasons – while chewing betel nut, a chemical reaction turns the saliva to a bright red colour. After a few minutes of chewing, the lips will become red. Just as in most parts of the world, red lips are a desirable mark of beauty in South-East Asia. In the past, lovers are said to chew betel nut to sweeten the breath. Furthermore, it is said that the Hue people in Vietnam purposely turned their teeth black through regular use of betel nut which was then considered to be a mark of beauty – as they regarded white teeth as something that were possessed only by animals. However, do not worry, you can chew betel nut and keep your teeth white through regular brushing.

  6. Betel leaf is considered a significant element in fostering both social and sexual relationships between men and women. It is believed that chewing betel nut stimulates passion and brings out charm between the two sexes due to its deodorant, aphrodisiac and invigorating properties. 
  7.  
  8. Another aspect of chewing betel nut is its ability to suppress hunger, hence, a brilliant panacea for slimming. So, do take note – who knows, it might be a formula for a multi-million dollar slimming business.

Risks Involving Betel Nut Chewing
TheInternational Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regards the chewing of betel nut to be a known human carcinogen. People who chew them have high risk of damaging their gums and acquiring cancer of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus and stomach. And more recently, studies at the Sir Buri Kidu Heath Institute have shown that betel nut chewing can cause a heart attack in susceptible individuals. In high doses, betel nut produces cocaine-like effects including elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, dilated pupils, anxiety, insomnia and cardiac arrhythmia.

It looks as though the dangers of chewing betel nuts far out-weigh its benefits. One thought though, if the above research is 100% accurate, how come people, who have been chewing betel nut all their lives, manage to live until a ripe old age?  Besides, I wonder whether the chew with the tobacco would make the mixture carcinogenic. Perhaps, without the tobacco it is ok (?).

However, in any case, I firmly believe that the ‘betel nut’ or ‘slar malou’ will continue to play a very important role in Khmer religious ceremonies, festivals, cultural beliefs, supernatural rituals and wedding ceremonies.