On holiday in Southeast Asia, it was my determination to try and find antiques or other collectibles that reflected the culture of the local regeion. In this respect, I was lucky and glad to find an antique which so perfectly tied in with the local culture, and for such a fantastic price.
The item you see above is a traditional betel or areca nut set, the most common of the many styles of such sets, found throughout Southeast Asia, from India to Indonesia, Vietnam to Singapore. Sets like this were the typical accessories used to enjoy one of the most common pastimes in southeast Asia: chewing betel nuts.
A Note on Terms
Although the correct terms are that the nuts are called ‘areca nuts’ and that the leaves with which they’re used, are called ‘betel leaves’, in common practice, both the nuts and leaves are called ‘betel’, and these are the terms which I will use in this posting, to prevent confusion.
What Are Betel Nuts?
Betel or aerca nuts are a type of berry, commonly found in Southeast Asia. Although it’s not known when the chewing of betel nuts and leaves began as a custom, it has had a long history in India, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and other countries in the region. The nuts contain a psychoactive drug, which can make their consumption highly addictive. In many respects, the chewing of betel nuts can be compared in the East, to the European tradition of chewing tobacco.
Why Were Betel Nuts Chewed?
Betel nuts were (and continue to be) chewed because they were addictive, but also because in many parts of Southeast Asia, it was simply the custom to do so – in many cases – for thousands of years! On top of that, the betel nut was considered to have breath-freshening properties – to the extent that in Europe, betel nuts were often ground up, and included in the first, commercially-available tubs of toothpaste, back in Victorian times. All these reasons were why, even in the 21st century – they continue to be a drug of addiction.
What’s the Purpose of the Betel Nut Box or Set?
Betel nut box-sets were extremely common in southeast Asia, made in everything from wood, to brass, silver, pewter and bronze. They can be found all over the region in varying sizes, styles and levels of complexity and detail. The point of these sets was to contain all the necessary ingredients and accouterments for a good session of prolonged chewing.
A typical set will include the box or framework to hold the accessories, various bowls, cups or smaller boxes, in which the nuts, leaves, areca nut bark, and powdered slake-lime are stored, and last but not least – a set of betel nut slicers or cutters, used to slice the nuts into wafer thin discs, suitable for chewing.
Betel nut sets ranged from the mundane, to the magnificent. The plainest ones were made of pewter or nickel silver. More elaborate ones were made of brass. Those who could afford it, had their sets made of solid silver. Novelty nut-slicers were also popular, and took on many forms. Ones featuring flowers, or animals like dragons, birds, or horses (like the one you see in these photos) were extremely popular.
When Did Betel-Nut Chewing Die Out?
Um…who said it did??
Nope, people still chew betel nuts today, and you can still buy betel nuts today in various Asian countries, although some governments are now trying to stamp out betel-nut sales and chewing. It’s generally perceived as a public nuisance and a public health-hazard. But no, you can still find them, and chew them. That said, the red staining, and the necessity to spit out the chewed mass at the end of the session means that they’re probably going to continue declining in popularity.