(Tea) to the guests with whatever other food or delicacies may have been proffered. Kun or betel takes pride of place among these three “musts” and to this day a betel box, particularly made of lacquer ware, is placed before guests in many homes. Burmese believed (some of them still do) that offering betel is to show warmth to the guests and to become friendlier with them while chewing and talking. It was a kind of an entertainment at that time. Men, women and monks of all ages and ranks chewed
betel. It was embedded in social convention and court ceremony, and a betel quid was a token of favour in village courtship and royal courts. Burmese history also mentions an ancient custom of a condemned enemy asking for “a Kun-ya and a drink of water” before being executed.
In Asian countries like India, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, a sheaf of betel leaves is traditionally offered as a mark of respect and auspicious beginnings. Occasions include, greeting elders at wedding ceremonies, New Year, offering payment to Ayurvedic physicians and astrologers where usually money and or areca nut are kept on top of the sheaf of leaves and offered to the elders for their blessings. In Vietnam, a groom might offer the bride’s parents betel and areca, the leaf and the nut symbolizing the ideal married couple bound together.
A betel quid is the name given to small parcels that typically contain areca nuts, wrapped in a betel leaf coated with slaked lime and may also contain tobacco. Spices may be added for taste including cardamom, saffron cloves and sweeteners. Betel chewers are still very prevalent in Myanmar, and one can see sellers at any busy intersection, offering betel quid to car drivers as they wait for the traffic light to go green. And at any street corner, you can find a little stall with
a tray piled high in a most attractive man- ner with green betel leaves, and a little pot of lime and small canisters and bottles full of ingredients to suit every taste.
The chewing of areca nuts dates back centuries, as far as the Bronze Age, according to a study of remains excavated at Nui Nap, Thanh Hoa province in Vietnam. Researchers found the teeth appeared to be stained by betel quid. World Health Organization reports that betel leaf is consumed, in Southeast Asian community worldwide, predominantly and also among migrated communities in Africa, Europe and North America. In an extensive scientific research, the WHO expert group for research on cancer reported that the percentage of oral cancer among all cancers diagnosed in hospitals in Asia has always been much higher than that usually found in western countries, where the habit of chewing betel quid, with or without tobacco, is virtually unknown. Researchers also noted that the cancer generally develops at the place in the mouth where the betel quid is kept. “Having one (betel quid) is okay, but the danger increases when you start having the second one. When you reach a certain point, people will get cancer,” said Professor Ying-chin Ko, vice president of China Medical University in Taiwan who conducted some of the first studies into the link between betel quid and oral cancer. Some evidence suggests betel leaves have immune boosting properties as well as anti-cancer properties.
There are about 100 varieties of betel vine in the world, The Burmese betel leaves, with bigger leaves with dark green color combined with thickness, are in great demand in several other countries of the world where demand far exceeds the local supply. Consequently, leaves worth about more than a million USD are exported to European countries. Thus it is most promising commercial leafy crop capable of attracting substantial amount of foreign exchange to the country.
The deep green heart shaped leaves of betel vine are cultivated intensively for its leaves which are consumed by more than half a million people in the country. Ancient traveller Ibn Battuta describes the betel growing as follows: “The betel is a tree which is cultivated in the same manner as the grape-vine; … The betel has no fruit and is grown only for the sake of its leaves … The manner of its use is that before eating it one takes areca nut; this is like a nutmeg but is broken up until it is reduced to small pellets, and one places these in his mouth and chews them. Then he takes the leaves of betel, puts a little chalk on them, and masticates them along with the betel.” Cultivation of betel creeper is tough and it needs fertile soil. Since it is a creeper, it needs a compatible tree or a long
pole for support. The farm yard is fenced with bamboo sticks and coconut leaves. The creeper cuttings are planted after proper dressing at the beginning of the monsoon season. The plants are neatly arranged in parallel rows about two feet apart, and the saplings are twined around upright sticks of split bamboo and reeds. Proper shade and irrigation are essential for the successful cultivation of this crop. The plants are regularly watered in the hot months. The leaves of the plant become ready for plucking after one year of planting and the production lasts for several years from the date of planting. Betel needs constantly moist soil, but there should not be excessive moisture.
Betel leaf is a popular spice in Southeast Asian cooking, with the leaves being used in their raw and cooked form. A traditional way of preparing the leaves is as a wrapping for spiced minced meat and other morsels of food. Because the leaves are so attractive, they are often used as a base for decorating platters, with food arranged on top of them. The white flower spikes of the betel plant develop into seeds or fruits that look a little like a green/brown mulberry when ripe and can be eaten; it is a tasty morsel of sweet- meat.