• 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 d