Many people are familiar with common drugs used to bring its users to a “high” state. Depending on where you are, such common drugs like cannabis may be illegal to either possess or consume. These drugs may also be addictive in nature. This is the reason for Singapore putting in place harsh penalties (including being “hanged by the neck until dead”) against drug trafficking and drug possession and consumption.
Why did I do drugs (sort of)
I did drugs. Well sort of.
So what made me try the nut of the Areca palm (i.e. Betel Nut) – a “mind-altering drug”? Do I not fear death or punishment?
For the record, the betel nut is not technically a banned substance here in Singapore and also other territories such as Taiwan. Some “drugs” are in fact socially acceptable (think for example coffee or tobacco both of which are in fact “drugs” that are acceptable) and even form part of a region’s culture. Betel nut is one such drug.
Betel nut has a historical/cultural slant to it and forms a key part of many Asian cultures. It can be consumed dried, fresh or wrapped. Depending on where you are in Asia, the exact wrap varies but would normally involve a wrapping of slaked lime and a betel leaf. However, innocuous as they may sound and look, betel nut is one of the more popular mind-altering substances in the world. It is slightly spicy and gives a warming glow to a body. As a stimulant, it is very popular among labourers who chew such nuts to stay awake through long hours of work. Its effect is comparable to caffeine or nicotine (but less addictive unless adulterated with tobacco or other substances).
So the answer maybe that it is a socially recognised drug (no different from tobacco and coffee). Or it maybe that I just wanted to try something my forefathers could have tried (some ingrained genetic memory deep inside me).
My experience chewing betel nut
So far, I had it twice (spaced out with a 17 months gap).
Both times were in Taiwan which is a hotbed for the consumption of such products. The nuts are cheap at NTD90 (SGD4 or USD3) for 12 nuts/wraps. That said, I understand such products are also available in Singapore (but maybe not as prevalent as that seen in Taiwan where you can easily find your next “chew” a block away from a street side stall)
For the uninitiated, betel nut chewing is a messy experience. Even before I had my first, I heard of stories of people spitting every so often to get rid of the build up of the betel nut juice from chewing and have also seen photographs of people smiling and showing off their red stained teeth.
I remember prepping myself for my first time.
My girlfriend had just went into the bathroom for her shower. Perfect time to look unglam.
I got ready a box of tissue paper just in case the nut bleeds too much. I didn’t want to stain the hotel room floor blood red. I also got ready a plastic bag (well… I had to make do as I don’t have a spittoon) for me to spit the expected betel nut juice into. When everything was handy and ready, I sat myself down onto a comfy chair and popped the first one in.
I can still remember that taste. It has this fresh herby taste to it from the betel leaf. It reminded me somehow of dishes that involve fresh herbs such as the Vietnamese Pho (with the basil leaves) and also Rojak (with the shavings of the flower of the banana plant). That is the first thing you will taste when you start chewing.
As you chew, the nut will start to “bleed” and your mouth will fill up with a red fluid. I was lazy and I did not spit out as much as I should have. I thought to myself “why bother” and “what’s the difference going to be if I kept it for a while longer before spitting it out”.
As it was my first time trying and also the fact that I had a few nuts to go through, I worked my way through the packet diligently. Imagine me chewing and spitting while watching tv with a bag stained red in my hand.
I didn’t feel much during the first two. By the time I reached the third, I was starting to feel the promised warm glowing sensation. It’s not the hot sensation you get from drinking a strong drink but close to slow buildup of warmth.
I gave up on my fourth.
My world started to spin and I got dizzy. I suspect my laziness (i.e. not spitting regularly) is to be blamed as the juices had more time to work its magic when I was holding it in my mouth. My girlfriend, after her long shower, found me in slouching in my chair with a bottle of water in my hand. Note to self: Do not go through the package too fast.
Would I try it again? Well, yes. I did have another go a year and a half later.
In terms of experience, it is quite unique and different from the consumption of other drugs. And when taken in moderation (and irregularly), this drug offers some “fun” element to it.
A note of warning, while it is all in the name of fun and to experience something new, please take this in moderation. While I don’t think it is addictive (at least from my two encounters with it), you should not over consume such drugs as the ingredients used (e.g betel nut, betel leaf and slaked lime) are either cancer causing or exposes you to cancer causing substances. For more information please read this insightful article on the BBC.
Let me know in the comments below whether you tried taking betel nuts before and your experience.