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In the Edge of Extinction: Betel Chewing  

by on Tuesday, 7 August 2007No Comment | 4,510 views

Betel chewing in Bali is an old pastime; nowadays, only the senior citizens enjoy this pastime. Betel chewing is definitely affordable to everyone since the ingredients that are needed can be easily obtained in the traditional market in a cheap price. Four ingredients are needed for betel chewing activities: betel leaf, areca nut, lime and gambir. Betel leaf provides an aromatic wrapper, areca nut gives the primary taste of in betel chewing, the lime releases the essence of areca nut and gambir enhances the taste. The ingredients are stored in a wooden box sometimes just on an ordinary plate.


Betel leaf is obtained from the leaf of Piper betle, known as “basé” in Bali, a pepper plant closely related to the species which produces black pepper. The areca nut is the fruit of tall, thin tropical palm, Areca catechu, known as “buah” in Bali. The nuts grow in bunches at the crown, each about the size of a hen’s egg. A single tree produces 500 to 1000 nuts every season. As the nuts ripen they turn from green to yellow and red at the end. The nut is like a miniature of coconut, with a fibrous husk surrounding the nut meat. Lime is obtained from the coastal areas of the island where quicklime is produced by calcining coral in wood-fired kiln. The output of the kiln is purified by stirring it in water, allowing the impurities to settle out. The process is repeated several times and then the slurry is scooped and dried in white blobs 4 to 6 cm in diameter. Gambir is obtained by boiling in water the leaves of tropical shrubs, Unicaria gambir. The extract is thickened over heat, poured into molds to solidify, and then cut into the cubes about 1 cm in diameter.

The ingredients are stored in a wooden box sometimes just on an ordinary plate.

To make a quid a fine betel leaf is selected, a sliver is cut from an areca nut, and it is placed on the leaf along with a pinch of lime and a crumb of gambir. The leaf with ingredients on it is folded or rolled tightly, and it is ready for chewing. For those who are toothless, the wad may be pre-mashed by placing it in a metal tube known as penglocokan, and working it with a plunger. When the ingredients are well mashed, the plunger is removed to other side and used to push the ready-to-chew wad back out.

Betel chewing, nowadays, in Bali, is a near-extinction pastime, practiced only by the elder generation.

A constant flow of saliva results as soon as the wad is put into the mouth, forcing the chewer to spit repeatedly. The sputum is blood red, and darkens upon exposure to air. The chew produces persistent stain on the ground as if a murder had been committed on the spot. The lips of the chewer are bright red during the chewing. After a minute or two the saliva stops flowing. Then the lips are cleaned by wiping them with shredded tobacco. The tobacco is often retained along with the betel quid in a spot between the lower teeth and the lower lip.

Betel chewing, nowadays, in Bali, is a near-extinction pastime, practiced only by the elder generation. Younger generations detest this activity. Betel chewing ingredients are no longer offered to the guests in a ceremonial gathering, they are replaced by cigarettes. In twenty or thirty years there will be no chewer left in Bali.

Materials for this writing are taken from Fred B. Eiseman Jr’s Sekala and Niskala Vol II.

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