Chewing Betel with Granny Yai

These are edited excerpts from our book A Potato in a Rice Field: During my first visits to Isaan, when we stayed next door in granny Yai’s house, I remember waking each morning to the “crack, crack, crack” of wood as she smashed together her first betel nut hit for the day. This same sound would then continue throughout the day, as Yai sits on the porch, from dawn to dusk, chewing betel, and gossiping with her betel chewing granny pals. And this was my introduction to Betel Nut in Thailand. Where here in Broken Road, the grannies wear weathered, black teeth like a fashion statement. And while it’s not always apparent at first, just give them a tickle, and out they will come. But with such tasty curries and soups in Thailand, who needs teeth anyway?

So the betel chewing tradition has been around in Isaan for thousands of years, only now it is dying fast with the older generations near the Cambodian borders, as the younger generations are in short supply (if any at all) when it comes to chewing betel. And it is rare these days to see a betel chewer below the age of 65. Oddly, it is only the women as well who chew betel nut in Thailand, which goes against what I’ve seen elsewhere in Asia, where it’s mostly the males who would chew betel.

But why eat betel at all? Well, apparently the ingredients are stimulant substances, and, with tobacco added, it does become an addictive pastime. And spending time with these chewers in Thailand has proved this, where Isaan grannies are never far from their chewing kits, and, when not nearby, they quickly get distracted to go looking for their next hit.

What is Betel Nut?

The term Betel Nut in Thailand is slightly misleading, as the actual nut is called the areca nut (maak) which is then mashed together with a leaf called the betel leaf (bai plu). So chewing betel leaf may be the better term. Again, neither of these ingredients are responsible for that blacky red colouring in the teeth, as this comes from a limestone paste which is added to the mix. And these days many betel chewers go for an alternative white limestone paste, to avoid the red staining. Although I don’t think it is any better with damage to the teeth otherwise.

Anyway, all three ingredients come from different sources, and, as with many of the cooking ingredients here, they can easily be found dotted throughout the compound. The areca nut, which looks like a hard-boiled egg when halved, are found in palm trees, as a drupe, along the central pathway of the compound. Then there is the betel leaf, a creeper plant the climbs the walls and fences of the garden perimeter. However, these do tend to be Yai’s emergency rations, as she prefers to buy high-quality gear by the bag-load from the local market. And, for a weeks supply of the three chewing ingredients, it costs around 40 Baht. It’s not an expensive addiction.

The Betel Chewing Kit

You’ll find Grannies are never far from there betel chewing kits, which include a small mortar and pestle, a sharp knife, a metal cutter for the areca nut, and a teaspoon. To then make the betel nut chew, first peel and discard the green skin of the areca nut, and what’s left in the centre of the nut, is chopped into shards with the cutter and go into the mortar. Next, the betel leaf is covered on one side with limestone paste, and this is rolled into a ball and thrown in with the areca nut in the mortar. The ingredients are then smashed together with the metal pestle.

Occasionally chewing tobacco is put under the gum for added stimulation, before the teaspoon is used to scoop the betel mix into the mouth. Chew, spit, chew, spit, chew, spit. Typically the ground is used for spitting on, but when sat inside, or in nice places, a cylindrical spitting container, stuffed with a baggie, will do.

So I would sit a lot with Yai on the front porch, and to make the most of this time I made a quick demonstration video of her chewing betel. And I did taste some myself without throwing up. But it was close.

A Potato in a Rice Field: In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief. Find it on Amazon here.

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