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  • Dickie Zebregs

For Kings and Peasants: The History of Betel-chewing

The most splendid of all boxes made in Asia are those that held the most common thing: betel-nuts, also known as Sirih in Indonesia. From pure gold and intricate gold-filigree, to ivory, tortoiseshell and silver, all varieties are known, but some more rare than the other. The ubiquitous red-stained lips and blackened teeth associated with betel chewing are sported by one-tenth of the human race and one-fifth of the global population. The custom pervades Asia, yet it is hardly known outside of the continent. It has no sex barriers and embraces all ages and classes. Even though it has long-established roots in Asian culture, history of the custom relies mainly on oral tradition, probably because it is most prevalent amongst the agrarian population.

History Since the eleventh century, however, the royal use of betel in South-East Asia is described in written records which provide a rich source of details about the protocol of sharing a quid with a king and the use of betel in royal ceremonies. From the sixteenth century onwards, when Europeans reached the East, accounts include descriptions of the royal use of betel but the custom has consistently been misrepresented by early western travellers who wrote about it, either from their own observations or those of others. The custom, so alien to foreigners, was viewed from a western perspective. Nearly all of them were repelled by it and called betel chewing an ‘…unhygienic, ugly, vile, and disgusting…’ habit. Even the name given to the custom by Europeans, ‘betel-nut chewing’ is a misnomer. The term is incorrect because an areca-nut, not a betel-nut, is chewed. Numerous English language dictionaries continued to retain ‘betel-nut’ as an entry until recently, but today most references to the custom are defined correctly under ‘betel’. The geographical parameters of betel chewing encompass an area of 11,000 km east-west and 6,000 km north-south and include the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, and all of South-East Asia. The boundaries extend to the eastern coastline of Africa to Madagascar in the West; Melanesia to Tikopia (in the Santa Cruz Islands) in the East; southern China in the North, and Papua New Guinea in the South [see map in book, Betel Chewing Traditions in South-East Asia, p.l 1].

A betel-chewing lady

Betel chewing is firmly embedded in the traditions of South-East Asia and enjoyed, even revered, on several levels. The most obvious reason as to why people chew betel is for social affability, in a way similar to westerners drinking coffee together. A key to its widespread patronage, though, lies in its use for other purposes besides chewing. The betel quid is also used as a medicine to cure a variety of illnesses ranging from headaches to skin infections. Betel is also believed to be a powerful link in contacting supernatural forces and as such is intricately entwined with the rites of animistic worship which give it magical qualities. And both the nut and the leaf are used symbolically in all ceremonies related to the rites of passage. It is particularly potent in fostering social and sexual relationships between a male and a female.

Ingredients and use

A betel quid has three essential ingredients and others may be added depending on availability and preference.

First, the so-called ‘nut’ is actually a seed of the Areca catechu, a member of the palm family. The slender trunk is one of the tallest of the palms and is distinguished by a cluster of leaves at the top sheltering stalks of the nuts. The nut itself is round or oval and about five centimeter long at maturity. At the earliest stage it is green and soft with a smooth exterior, but it gradually turns yellowish to brownish with a tough, fibrous husk when it hardens. The young nut is succulent and sweet-tasting whereas the mature one is bitter and savoury.

Second, the leaf, that is from the vine of the Piper betle pepper plant.

The preparation of the betel-package

Lime or klopok in Indonesia, the third ingredient, is obtained from various available sources. The lime is ground to a powder (calcium oxide) and mixed with water to a paste-like consistency (calcium hydroxide) to make it suitable for chewing. Limestone chalk (calcium carbonate), obtained from mountain lime, is used in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Sea shells and molluscs, such as snails, and coral provide sources of lime in the island areas. They are pulverized by burning and then crushing with a hammer or even the hands. Mussels and other freshwater shellfish from rivers and streams are used in the Philippines. In some places cumin or turmeric are added to the lime, which gives a pink or reddish cast to the paste. Additional ingredients are a status symbol and the greater the number and the more exotic, the higher the owner’s prestige. Other additions listed in early Sanskrit texts were mainly spices, the luxuries from the Moluccan islands. They included cardamom, clove, camphor, musk, nutmeg, black pepper, and dry ginger. Interestingly, many of these spices are still used as additives in betel chewing today. A stick of clove may be added to secure a folded or rolled quid. Cinnamon, coriander, and ambergris add flavour and thus enhance the taste. Cardamom stimulates the flow of saliva. Tobacco is a modern addition to the quid. Sometimes shreds of tree bark are substituted for tobacco.

The most common method of making a betel quid in South-East Asia is: the leaf is daubed with lime paste and topped with thin slices of an areca-nut; then the leaf is folded, like wrapping a present, to the desired shape and size; finally, the wad is placed between the teeth and the cheek and pressed with the tongue to allow sucking and chewing. Sometimes it is held in the mouth for hours; others sleep with it. The interaction of the ingredients during chewing produces a red-coloured saliva, and most of the betel juice is spat out. The tell-tale residue looks like splotches of dried blood on the ground.

18th century Indonesian silver Sirih-box from our collection (for sale)

Origins The origins of betel chewing are unknown but it is at least 2,000 years old. Although it has long been held that betel chewing is native to India, recent linguistic and archaeological evidence casts doubt on this theory. Only literary evidence continues to support an Indian origin. The word ‘betel’ was first used in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese. According to I.H. Burkill, it is probably a transliteration of the Malay word vetila (‘the mere leaf’) which is close in sound to ‘betel’. The word has undergone a series of spellings from ‘bettele’ to ‘betre’ to ‘betle’ and finally to ‘betel’. ‘Areca’ may have derived from the Malay word adakka (‘areca-nut’) or from adakeya , the Indian equivalent. The widest range of words for ‘areca’ and ‘betel’ has been found in Indonesia, which suggests it may be the original location where these words were spoken. In India, on the other hand, the lack of variety of words for ‘areca’ and ‘betel’ indicates a later date of origin for the plants in that area. Moreover, sireh , the most widespread name for betel in Malaysia, is not derived from Sanskrit, which suggests betel chewing might have developed independently in Malaysia. Based on linguistic evidence, therefore, the custom seems to be native to the Indonesian archipelago.The earliest archaeological evidence found so far is at Spirit Cave in north-western Thailand, where remains of Areca catechu, dating from 10,000 BC have been found. Similar finds have been reported at other early sites in Thailand such as Ban Chiang which dates to 3600 BC to AD 200-300. All finds, however, are from the cultivated plant; the absence of a wild species in the same area may suggest the custom originated elsewhere. The wild species has been found in Malaysia and adds archaeological support to the linguistic evidence of its origin in that area. Skeletons bearing evidence of betel chewing, dated to about 3000 BC, have also been found in the Duyong Cave in the Philippines. Compared with these finds, the earliest archaeological evidence for betel found in India is the early years of the present era, which is much later than other parts of the region.

Sirih and the Spirits

According to ancient belief, all spirits whether good or evil must be dealt with and controlled through rituals. Offerings of betel are made to satisfy, win over, or thank good spirits and to exorcise evil ones. The spirit Phra Phum, Lord of the Land, is given special attention in Thailand. It is believed that if he is taken care of through appropriate offerings he will guard and protect the people who live on the land near his miniature spirit house. Spirits of the land and water are carefully looked after in agricultural areas where adequate rainfall and fertile soil are essential for the cultivation of rice. Evil spirits are the most feared of the supernatural forces because they cause illness, so many rituals focus on exorcising the evil spirits and replacing them with protective ones. A medium is considered to possess supernatural power in establishing communications between the spiritual and earthly worlds and is especially adept in dealing with evil spirits.Betel plays a symbolical role in rituals associated with ancestral spirits. It is customary in parts of South-East Asia to provide the deceased with appurtenances from the worldly life to accompany them to eternity. The importance of betel on earth makes it an essential item to go with the deceased on the journey to the spiritual world. The use of betel for funeral rites is also believed to pave the way for a better incarnation for the deceased. Betel quids and rice are typical offerings used to honour and propitiate the spirits of deceased ancestors.


Betel chewing gave rise to an entire artistic genre that included implements for preparing, serving, transporting, and storing betel ingredients. These are as varied and distinctive as the custom itself. In Europe, the most intricate snuff-tobacco boxes were made, and in Asia one can find a great number of different boxes and utensils for betel. From plain wood boxes, to metal, made from beads, to lacquer and for the most important people: gold. In these boxes, usually approximately 20 cm in length, were carried the ingredients for the preparation of a sirih quid: lime, areca nut, a piece of gambir (the dried sap of Jasminum multifl orum) and the sirih. It also contained a small knife, spatula and scissors. For another description of the sirih preparation see Jan Veenendaal, Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India during the Dutch period, Delft, 1985, p. 87.

Indonesian tortoiseshell sirih box with gold and silver-gilt mounts, 18th century and later, from our collection (for sale)

The most basic set would just be a geometric receptacle, such as a box, tray or basket, divided into compartments to hold the ingredients and equipment. It would be made of local materials, such as bamboo, rattan or wood, and would be elegant as well as functional. The ground around betel-chewers colours red quickly, as the residue is spat out.

Gold boxes, 18th-19th century, our collection (for sale)

Of course, it was undignified for members of royalty to spit and they had spittoons, of which the high nobility in pure gold. The best betel equipment was owned by them, often made of gold, and was part of the standard royal regalia for rulers in South East Asia. Much time and effort was put into their creation and beautiful, artistic pieces were the result. A person’s standing was clear from the materials and decorations of his betel set. Betel sets were exchanged as gifts between foreign rulers and given to loyal retainers as rewards for services rendered. Unfortunately only a few gold boxes are known, for they were often molten down in times of dire need.

Present-day betel-chewing

A remaining consideration is the impact of cigarette smoking on betel chewing in South-East Asia. Articles in journals often report that cigarette smoking has replaced betel chewing but they fail to cite the basis for the statement. Others maintain that the introduction of tobacco has had little effect on betel chewing. One of the few surveys conducted on this aspect concluded that cigarette smoking has largely replaced betel chewing amongst adult Indonesian men. Women, though, according to the survey, continue to chew betel. Over 85 per cent of the men in Indonesia smoke cigarettes compared with 1.5 per cent of the women. As we move towards the twenty-first century, the 2000 year-old custom of betel chewing seems to be losing its appeal in South-East Asia, at least in urban areas.

Indonesian silver spittoon, 18th century, for sale

This is in contrast to other parts of Asia, particularly India. In Bombay, for example, the number of people who chew betel is actually increasing. Discernible changes in the marketing of ingredients in South-East Asia reflect a response to changes in consumption. Vendors selling leaves, nuts, and lime from a plastic bucket on street corners in the cities are gone, suggesting a decrease in the demand for the ingredients and, by deduction, a decrease in the custom. The present generation seems to be chewing less betel than their grandparents. The younger ones, many of whom have been educated abroad and have inculcated Western ideas, find betel chewing no longer socially acceptable. Other modern social taboos, such as spitting, have contributed to the decline of betel chewing. Progress in urban areas has created an increased pace of life and discourages a leisurely chew. Despite these trends pointing towards a decline in the custom, the legacy of betel chewing remains and its use for medicinal and symbolical purposes continues as a vital part of the culture of South-East Asia.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY Bellwood, Peter, Man’s Conquest of the Pacific, New York, Oxford University Press, 1979.Brownrigg, Henry, Betel Cutters from the Samuel Eilenberg Collection, Stuttgart and London, Edition Hansjorg Mayer, 1991.Buddle, Anne, Cutting Betel in Style (exhibition catalogue), London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1979.Burkill, I.H., A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula , 2 vols., London, Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1935. Gimlette, John D., Malay Poisons and Charm Cures, London, J. & A. Churchill, 1929; reprinted Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1971. Gorman, Chester F., ‘Excavations at Spirit Cave, North Thailand, Some Interim Interpretations’, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 13, 1970, pp. 79-107. The Inscription of Ramkamhaeng the Great, edited by Chulalongkorn University on the 700th Anniversary of the Thai Alphabet, Bangkok, n.d. Klebert, Beowulf K., ‘The Lerche Collection: Chewing Betel Through the Ages’, Arts of Asia, January-February 1983, pp. 107.13. Latham, Ronald (trans.), The Travels of Marco Polo, Penguin Books, London, 1958. Morarjee, Sumati, Tambula: Tradition and Art, Bombay, Tata Press, n.d. Penzer, N.M., Poison-damsels, and Other Essays in Folklore and Anthropology , London, private print for C.J. Sawyer, 1952. Reid, Anthony, ‘From Betel-Chewing to Tobacco-Smoking in Indonesia’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. XLIV, No. 3, May 1985, pp. 529-47. Rooney, Dawn, Betel Chewing Traditions in South-East Asia, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1993. Thierry, Solange, Le Betel, I. Inde et Asie du Sud-Est, Series K, Asie I, Paris, musee de l_Homme, 1969. White, Joyce C., Discovery of a Lost Bronze Age: Ban Chiang, Philadelphia, The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, and the Smithsonian Institution, 1982. Wong, Grace, ;A Comment on the Tributary Trade between China and Southeast Asia, and the Place of Porcelain in this Trade, During the Period of the Song Dynasty in China,’ Chinese Celadons and Other Related Wares in Southeast Asia, Singapore, Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, 1979, pp. 73-100.

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