Whilst travelling through Burma you’ll notice in every market, village, town and city small stands that look something like little painted-up hotel lobby information booths. Look closer and you’ll see that these stands are actually selling the raw materials for what has to be the Burmese national pastime; betel nuts for chewing.
Kun ja, (as the Burmese call it), has been around for thousands of years in Southeast Asia as a mild stimulant but is also said to be good for chronic bad breath and getting rid of intestinal parasites as well. Betel nut isn’t really a nut but rather the seed from the areca palm wrapped in betel leaves – which are actually from a vine. (And in case you want to grow your own...)
The leaf is first coated in lime, (not that bad you say, but not lime the fruit, rather calcium hydroxide to release the stimulant from the seed!), before adding a little tobacco fermented in rice whisky, a few cardamom seeds and perhaps a slice of dried coconut, coconut milk, clove or even dried mango. The whole thing is then folded into a small packet and placed between the gum and cheek and chewed from anywhere between a few minutes to a couple of hours. Along with a little bounce in your step it also makes you salivate causing you to spit frequently, much like chewing tobacco, but in a vibrant blood red color.
On a recent Burma tour I decided to try taking up betel chewing on a dare from one of our lovely customers. Lucky me! So after we toured the market in Pyin U Lwin I picked out a stall in the middle of the main road and said, “one please”. The stall owner looked a little puzzled but smiled – his teeth were stained red and black like a zombie from Dawn of the Dead, another bonus of betel nuts – and wrapped me one up. I tried to give him 100 kyat in return but in typical Burmese fashion he refused. (Reckon he just wanted to see a foreigner try a betel nut. I popped it in and away we went. The initial taste was sour and earthy with a hint of medicine-ish sweetness though chewing the pouch was a bit awkward and the seed felt like I was chewing a piece of teak wood. After a few minutes I felt a slight buzz and the right side of my jaw went numb before I began spitting a nice reddish brown juice! By the time all I could taste was the concoction in my mouth and my tongue was tingling violently I threw in the towel. The only thing that got the taste out of my mouth was the extra helping of chilies at lunch and a Myanmar beer to wash it down.
So I was off the betel for a while but against my better judgment I tried it again. On a trek in the Shan hills near Kalaw, one of our local guides offered me betel nut with coconut and a different tobacco mixture. I was hesitant at first but being polite and curious I tried it and it did prove to be much better than the first time as well as giving me a little more pep for the trek. In the end though, I still wanted to brush my tongue afterwards. Besides the fact you start to develop sores in your mouth, increased risk of cancer, diabetes and lovely red and black teeth it generally tastes really bad. Not recommended!