Driving around Taiwan I saw the bright neon signs everywhere, like twinkling spokes of a wheel beckoning customers to stop. The shops were all similar, glass boxes or small stores staffed by one or two people, usually scantily clad women. I couldn’t figure out what the shops were, the consistency in signs though led me to believe they were similar to French tabacs, but I wasn’t really even close. As I learned midway through my trip around Taiwan these enticing storefronts were selling betel nuts, the famous psychoactive stimulant I’d head so much about.
I remember first hearing about these strange nuts (they’re not really nuts, they’re technically a drupe, like pistachios) either in National Geographic or on one of the many documentaries I’ve watched about Asia and the Pacific over the years. People in this part of the world have been chomping down on betel nuts for thousands of years, having long ago realized that by chewing the nut and leaf together a mild stimulant is created. In Taiwan the small, rolled packages are chewed by truck drivers and blue-collar workers for the most part, but that doesn’t mean other people aren’t curious, including myself.
So what exactly does the betel nut do? Well supposedly one chews the nut rolled in a small bit of leaf and the result is a warming sensation and a quick wake me up; sort of like a cup of coffee. The ill effects though could be seen everywhere; teeth stained red from the nut’s juice the most visible result of the habit. And habit it is, the behavior of people who chewed the nut regularly reminded me a lot of tobacco addiction and in fact, small bits of tobacco are often added to the betel nut package. After a few days of seeing the flashing betel nut signs everywhere my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give them a try.
Enlisting the help of my driver, an ardent betel nut chewer, we stopped at the nearest stand where we surprised and amused the local residents. They were kind though, after I made it clear I didn’t want an entire package of 30 wrapped nuts, they gave me a few for free so I could try them out. So with the kindness of strangers behind me and an insatiable curiosity propelling me forward, I started my first and last lesson in the fine art of chewing betel nuts.
In an ideal world I would have put the leaf-wrapped nut in my mouth, biting it in half to release the meat inside and then immediately nestle the pieces between my lip and gum. However after biting the little, innocuous looking nut in two the explosion of flavor was so intense that I couldn’t handle it. It’s not a good flavor either, the taste was intensely bitter and just plain awful. My first inclination was to spit, which I did and then to swallow, which I also did but really shouldn’t have. My first, and last, experience with the betel nut had not gone well but even with that limited exposure I started to feel some effects from it. Even though it’s not in the literature, the areas in my mouth where the nut had been felt mildly numb, as if an anesthetic had been applied. And that taste! That taste was something I just couldn’t get rid of, the acrid flavors combined with the woody texture of the nut for a truly horrible sensation.
Everyone laughed good naturedly as I failed the betel nut test, my driver went on to buy a packet of nuts for the long drive ahead and before I knew it we were gone. But that’s not why I wanted to try them. I could care less about the stimulating effects of the nuts; I’ll just buy some coffee if I need a pick me up. No, I wanted to try it because it was yet another way of getting to know Taiwan in a way that is intensely personal and not just made up of seeing temples and famous sites. I knew the betel nut culture was important and I wanted to make sure I at least tried it to better understand the country even just a little bit more. That’s what I love most about travel and it’s what keeps me always planning my next trip; the chance to learn something, anything that I didn’t know before. Even if it means chewing some betel nuts.
Have you tried something unusual or even disgusting on your travels? What was it?
21 thoughts on “The Day I Chewed Betel Nuts in Taiwan”
Nice post! I wasn’t aware it was such a big thing in Taiwan. My first experience with it was in Myanmar. You can definitely tell who the users are by looking at their teeth! I’ve also heard a lot of concerns around its use in Dubai by construction workers…
Agggh. I love trying all kinds of new things, but I’ve never been very adventurous in the stimulus/tobacco-y/maybe-a-drug departments. Interesting story and good for you, trying a betel nut… but I think I’m going to take your word for it and stay away myself hahaha.
I was born and raised in taiwan (taipei to be exact). betel nuts were the norm even back then (several decades ago; yes i am ancient). i hated it because the spit stained pavement and god forbid if you step on one. so gross!
you are right about the class of people who love it. it is a blue collar thing. like what the blacks would say “ghetto” thang.
The Spice Girls! And their neon light shops!
One of those funny odd things about Taiwan that becomes so common you forget about it. That is, until someone writes or talks about it. It is so common, it just becomes part of the scenery and the background.
Brave of you to try one, never have…
Do you know why the signs are in those half wheel shapes?
Hey, the half wheel thing ur referring to is probably something like a candy stick. In many Chinese movies they have these sticks of fermented fruits coated with candy for sale. I believe betel nuts may have been promoted like this in the past, or simply to attract kids by selling betel as ‘candies’. (I know this is an old post. Just thought u might be still curious to know haha)
As I’ve been told in Taiwan the half wheel shape of the neon tube signs refers to or symbolizes the shape of a palm leaf of the betelnut tree, which would make sense.
However, when I first came to Taiwan almost 20 years ago I arrived in the city of Chia-i to somehow get to my university – I wondered if the taxi driver was suffering from a serious form of a lung disease, constantly spitting blood. I soon learned that it was just the impact of the famous betelnut! Of course I had to try it later – and I failed just like you, an awful but nonetheless very instructive experience…
Also the norm in Sabah. We were offered it often when we were there, but politely didn’t accept. Kava is a big thing in the Pacific islands and Gordon tried that in Fiji and Samoa. It’s a man thing mostly so I was spared. I think he will give it a pass next time. Now we will give the betel nuts a miss too.
I’d try kava once just to see what it’s like
Do those very tiny lunch box stores type you find all over Taiwan give like a more ‘community’ spirit about the place?
The raw betel nut sold in Taiwan is highly carcinogenic and is one of the leading causes of oral cancer.
Thank goodness I tried it only once then!
What about just the dry betel nut. I just tried one now and I am feeling very very dizzy. Not sure what to do?
I bought a bag of them when I was living in Indonesia they are called pinang there I only chewed one without the lime leaf it is so dry you have no saliva in your mouth and it is very bitter, I am now in Taiwan and see the booths everywhere with drivers buying them, everywhere you look there are red stains and shells everywhere disgusting
Tried things that turned out to be disgusting? Yes, in France. Not the escargot, as most non-snail-eating-culture U.S. people might think. Having had escargot in the USA at a nice restaurant and liked that, I imagine the true French item would be better.
The food that disgusted me in France was the joint. This was not the long bone and meat of a 4-legged beast, but the ‘elbow’ or ‘knee’ and it was perfectly prepared as far as I could tell, because my friends acclaimed the restaurant highly. They did, however, warn me that this delicacy was very rich and I might or might not not like it, but I was determined to try something new, I normally like what I would consider ‘rich’ or savory food in the USA, and in matters of food I certainly trust the French chef. The flavor was so intensely rich and savory and it melted in my mouth. Unfortunately for my unaccustomed taste, it was much too fatty, so that after several bites I felt like my tongue was coated in grease. I believe that was the meal at which I first truly appreciated the ability of a good wine to cleanse the palate! In all I do not regret it at all because I tried something new and we all had a good time even if my French colleagues made some good-nature remarks at my expense. Of course I had to carefully make an excuse so as not to offend, just tried to have good manners. It was simple to just quietly say the truth, that they had been right and the dish was excellent but much too rich for my unaccustomed habits.
I’ve never been to Taiwan, but spent some time in the Philippines. Of course in the recent Duterte-era, trying any stimulant, especially as a foreigner, is a risky proposition.
Strangely enough, the majority of my betel nut experience actually comes from here in the states. I’m friends with a group of Polynesian co-workers, and their use generally runs during the weekend while drinking, so of course they had me try it. Not that I’m proud of the fact, but I’ve been a skoal man for several years, but even so, the betel nut gave me quite the head rush. One thing that’s maybe different from your experience, is that my friends had some powdered coral that they lightly sprinkled on the nut first, as it’s an alkali and apparently helps release the stimulant better?
I lived in Bolivia once, and there they chew the coca leaf by first chewing up a wad of leaves, which taste like sweet, not bitter, tea, then after chewing some they put the wad in their cheek and add baking soda which immediately starts numbing the mouth as the baking soda releases the cocaine. In some places the Indians use a gourde filled with ashes (potashe) and dip a stick in the stem end to get the ashes. It forms a glass-like coating down the neck of the gourde from long use.
From the musical, South Pacific by Richard Rogers:
Bloody Mary’s chewin’ betel nuts
She is always chewing betel nuts
Bloody Mary’s chewing betel nuts
And she don’t use Pepsodent!
Now ain’t that too damn bad!
Thanks for the blog review. I have become interested in the betel nut do to the show Vikings on the History channel. The lead character was prone to using it. I doubt the north men had betel nut available or enough to become addicted, but you never know.
Thanks for the info on betel nut. A friend of mine from India used to chew on these and I was curious to know why. Don’t recall him having red teeth, however. My experience with disgusting food was in the Philippines a while ago. It’s called balut and it’s a cooked unhatched fermented (chicken?) egg. It was suggested I eat it in the dark. Nevertheless I had to spit it out as feathers are not something I consider edible.
I picked up a box of betel nuts in Taiwan with the intention of trying to plant them and grow a betel nut tree in Texas. Unfortunately, I forgot about them being in my suitcase for quite some time. By the time I remembered where they were, they were covered in mold. I haven’t been back to Taiwan since then.
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