By Michael H. Kew
“Betel nut” is a misnomer. Betel is the glossy heart-shaped leaf of the betel plant, a flowering vine of the same genus as Piper nigrum (black pepper). Typically wrapped in a betel leaf for human consumption, the nut is not actually a nut but the seed of the tall thin areca palm which thrives Pacific-wide. When the seed husk is green, the white innards are soft hence chewed to induce mild euphoria. Excluding personal boredom and addiction, betel nut is said to be used for hunger suppression, stress reduction, and prolonged alertness.
On Pohnpei I’d first tasted it. Not my favorite. Some Yapese had described theirs as sweet with a touch of salt. Betel leaf generally tastes peppery but can be quite bitter per the varietal, like the kind I bought my first day in Yap. Always chewed with white lime powder (coral which is burnt and crushed) and often nicotine-spiked with tobacco, the blend sparks a chemical reaction that reddens saliva—splashes of maroon spit stain the holy grounds of Colonia. The whole shebang is thinly shamed by the FSM’s well-intentioned but somewhat totalitarian and ineffective anti-betel nut campaigns, much like the silly decades of American government anti-smoking and anti-drug propaganda.
Back at the dock, as his boat’s gas tanks are being refilled, Michael demonstrates his ritual. From a small dirty brown bag he plucks a green seed and sets it upon a betel leaf. After adding some Philippines tobacco, he fingers the combo between his left cheek and lower gums. He says he didn’t start chewing until age 24. “But people who were born and raised with betel nut, like my kids were, they start chewing when they’re maybe eight years old. There are kids who chew when they are four or five.”
“Why’d you start so late?”
“I don’t know. One day I just did it. I like how it makes me feel. Right now, if I had another pepper leaf, I could offer you some. But these nuts are too small. Not the right size. If you chew these, you’re gonna have burn.”
“In Colonia I bought a $6 bag.”
“That is expensive,” he says ruefully. “When it’s in season, the cheapest bag is $1. Now it’s going higher. Some places, you find it $10 for a bag. And I’m using dry leaves. No fresh leaves now because they are very expensive in the dry season. Dry season kills most of the leaves and betel nuts.”
In the “off” (dry) season, Michael chews 20 betel nuts daily; 30 in the “on” season. Yap’s best betel nut seems to coincide with Yap’s best surf. The offseason is just fine with me.