I was introduced to betelnut in India, back in 2001. Everywhere, I saw these rickety little stands on the street corners, with long strips of square, foil packages hanging over a wire. I thought they were condoms. At some point, I made a comment to Bhawani—the driver I had hired—that it surprised me so see so many condom vendors, as India didn’t strike me as a particularly contraception-focused place. After Bhawani stopped laughing at me, he explained that the foil packages contained betelnut, and that people chewed it like tobacco. I tried it. It was gross. Kind of like chomping on Mexican jumping beans, or badly roasted coffee beans, mixed with spices. But, you know, I suppose I’ve put worse things in my mouth over the years.
Fast forward a dozen years, and I’m in a taxi, on my way to soak in a natural hot springs just outside of Taipei that the taxi driver promised would make me “look like sexy teenager again.” We were cruising along a frontage road under the elevated rail tracks, and I noticed a long line of storefronts, each with a young, gorgeous, scantily clad girl sitting on a tall stool in the front window. It reminded me of Amsterdam, back in the day. The driver noticed me looking at them, and responded to my unasked question with “Betel Girls!”
Apparently, betelnut chewing is popular in Taiwan, too, among drivers and manual laborers, and anyone who needs a legal stimulant boost to get them through the workday. You can tell who uses the stuff, because their lips and teeth get dyed a juicy red color, like that produced by those plaque-disclosing tablets the dentists used to make us chew as kids to teach us how to properly brush our teeth. The betelnut product is pretty much fungible, so the vendors compete for the consuming public’s business by hiring pretty girls to sell it in glass cabinet-like storefronts along side streets. The taxi driver asked me if I wanted to try some, but I declined, saying I knew the stuff and wasn’t a fan.
A couple weeks later, I saw a package of Taiwanese betelnut up close, and it was totally different from what I had seen in India. Instead of crunchy, dried nuts with spices, this was green and fresh looking, in a clear zip pouch. I was intrigued.
The green bud of the nut that contains the active chemical compound was wrapped in a fresh, green leaf with a smear of lime paste on it. (The leaf is the “betel” part, actually, as the nut is an areca nut, and the wrapping is a betel leaf.) According to the expert instructions I received, you bite off the stem tip of the bud, and spit that part out.
It’s fibrous and woody and would get stuck in your teeth. Then, you pop the rest of the bud and the leaf in your mouth and chew and chew and chew. It was nasty, but not nearly as far down the scale of nastitude as the stuff I tried all those years ago in India. (No offense, Indian betelnut fans/purveyors.)
The immediate taste of the Taiwanese betelnut is very astringent, and both bitter and sour from the lime paste on the leaf wrapping. It almost stings. After a moment, your mouth starts to tingle, and you might feel a little bit of a head rush.
I’m told my face turned pink and my eyes watered. I can’t say it made me high, though, which is what I was warned might happen. Or, perhaps, it just wasn’t enough to override my normal, baseline dizziness. We’ll never know.
As you chew, the taste turns into something like chalky lawn clippings, and the red juice starts to form. That’s when I spit the stuff out. I’m all for a local experience, but I just had my teeth bleached before leaving San Francisco. Don’t want to be counteracting the magical, rejuvenating effects of that hot springs with nasty, red teeth, now do we?