During my first visits staying next door in Yai’s house I remember waking each morning to the crack of wood as Yai smashes together her first betel hit for the day. This sound would continue throughout the day where Yai sits on the porch, from dawn to dusk, chewing betel, and gossiping with her betel chewing granny pals. Here in Broken Road the grannies wear weathered, black teeth like a fashion accessory, and while it’s not always apparent at first, just give them a tickle, and out they come. With such tasty soups and curries in Thailand, who needs teeth anyway? So the betel chewing tradition has been around in Isaan for thousands of years although it is now dying fast. The younger generations are in short supply (if any at all), and it is rare to see a betel chewer below the age of 65. Oddly, it is only the women in rural Thailand who have taken to this habit, which goes against what I’ve seen elsewhere in Asia, where it’s mostly a male habit. But why eat betel at all? Apparently the ingredients are stimulant substances and, with tobacco added in it does become an addiction. Spending time with these chewers has proved this where they’re never far from their chewing kits and, when not nearby, they quickly get distracted and go looking for their next hit.
You’ll often hear betel referred to as “Betel Nut” which I find a little misleading. The actual nut in the chew is the areca nut which is mashed together with a leaf, called the betel leaf. So chewing betel leaf would maybe be the better term. Again, neither of these ingredients create that blacky red coloring in the teeth, as this comes from a limestone paste which is added to the mix. However, these days more chewers go for an alternative white limestone paste which avoids the red staining, although I don’t think it is any better with damage to the teeth. 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, is found in a palm tree, as a drupe, and are found along the central pathway of the compound. Then there’s the betel leaf, which is a creeper plant found climbing the walls and fences of the garden perimeter. However these tend to be Yai’s emergency rations where she prefers to buy bags of high quality gear from the local market. For a weeks supply of the three chewing ingredients, it costs around 40 Baht (80 pence). It’s not an expensive habit.
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 tea spoon. To make the chew first peel and discard of the green skin on the areca nut, which isn’t needed. What’s left, in the centre of the nut, is then chopped with the cutter and the shards go into the mortar. Next the betel leaf is covered on one side with limestone paste and which is rolled up into a ball and thrown in to join the areca nut in the mortar. The ingredients are then smashed together with the metal pestle. Occasionally a chewing tobacco is put under the gum for added stimulation before the tea spoon is used to scoop the betel mix into the mouth. Chew, spit, chew, spit, chew, spit. Typically the ground does well for spitting on, but, when sat inside, or in nice places, a cylindrical spitting container, stuffed with a baggie, will do. I sit a lot with Yai on the front porch so, to make the most of this time, I made a quick demonstration video of her chewing betel. I did taste some myself, and didn’t throw up. It was close.
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.