During my wanderings around town I have seen this quite a few times on the streets:
At first I thought it was puke…someone had a SERIOUS digestive problem. Then as I continued to run into these sights, I started thinking that maybe there is a giant rodent problem in Taiwan and these are the kill zones. Wrong again.
Nope. These were ejected globules of saliva from betelnut chewers.
Betel nut (officially Areca nut) is the seed of a palm tree that grows all over south and south east Asia. There are massive plantations of betel nut palms in Pingtung, a county (think province or state) in southern Taiwan. It is said that these plantations are terrible for the environment because they loosen the soil and cause erosion. In addition growing betel nut takes 5 times as much water as growing rice.
The betel nut is mixed with slaked lime and possibly other spices (cloves, cardamum etc.) to enhance flavour, then wrapped in a betel leaf (which is from a totally different plant, but called the same thing). This concoction is then presented as “Taiwan’s chewing gum” by some of the locals.
The effect of chewing the combined ingredients has a few “fun” effects:
- Depending on the quality of the ingredients you can get anything from a mild caffeine buzz to a strong body buzz. The average result is equivalent to drinking a few cups of strong coffee.
- When chewed, produces a red colour which combines with your saliva to give you that fresh “I-just-drank-some-blood” look.
- Use produces copious amount of (red) saliva that you have to frequently get rid of, so you become a leaky faucet for a while. (DON’T swallow it!). Bring a spit container.
- Long term use can lead to oral cancer; the chew is carcinogenic.
Betel nut is wildly popular in Taiwan. While it is largely used by those in industries that require long periods of wakefulness (truckers, taxi-drivers etc) it is also used by a lot of the population to unwind and relax, much like cigarettes. And just like cigarettes, it’s highly addictive. In addition to recreational chewing, betel nut is also used in traditional Chinese medicine, and in other capacities all over Asia.
The first time I tried it, I was knocked on my ass. Holy shit!!! This is legal?? I had a massive body buzz, but my mind was very clear. I could think rationally and everything seemed to come into sharper focus. It was pretty awesome, but I’m sure that the effect (like all drugs) becomes less and less potent with use. For this reason (among others – see pics below) I have decided to chew betel nut only for special occasions.
Binlang Xi Shi
Binlang is the Mandarin word for betelnut.
Xi Shi comes from an old Chinese story. There are probably many different versions, but this is the one I heard.
There was once a common woman who was the envy of all in the kingdom because of her incredible beauty. It was said that her beauty was such, that if she stared into a fish pond, the fish were so dazzled that they forgot to swim. (Imagine the effect she would have on busy street traffic today!!!)
Every man desired her, but she was in love with one of the king’s advisors who loved her back. They were set to get married, and everything was all good.
Then disaster struck. A neighbouring, stronger kingdom attacked and took over the realm. To get him to spare the people, the advisor (the old king was slain) offered the beautiful woman to the conquering king. Even though it tore both of them apart, it was for the greater good and the former couple accepted the need for their sacrifice.
The king was so entranced by the woman that he started neglecting his duties. Over time, his kingdom weakened, and was overthrown by the former king’s adivsor. After this, the woman and her once lover were re-united, and lived happily ever after. Her name was Xi Shi.
Over time, Xi Shi came to be synonymous with “beautiful lady”
Binlang Xi Shi literally means “beautiful betelnut lady”, and this is how betelnut is sold in Taiwan. There are numerous booths on the sides of most road, garishly lit and featuring scantily clad women peddling betelnut. Motorists pull up, the Xi Shi walks out, takes the order and returns with the product. Competition is so fierce, that at one point the girls were barely wearing anything, but recently the government has cracked down in the name of decency.
So there you have it.
Betelnut is environmentally unfriendly to produce, carcinogenic and causes you to have to spit up red saliva in a cup. Constantly.
BUT, it gets you high, and you get it from hot girls.
And, prolonged use of the substance will give you a winning countenance. Similar to these:
So while betel nut does give you a kick ass buzz if used infrequently, regular use can make you look like a happy, highly caffeinated Dracula. You have been warned!!
Pictures Sources (in order of appearence) :