Sunday, November 15, 2015

Unexpected Culture

Betel nut, also known as betel gum or Areca nut, is vibrant, red, tomato paste-looking substance.  It is not actually from a "beetle," and it's quite alarming when you first see an adorable 90-year-old Thai grandma with an apparent bloody mouth.  Similar to a baseball player chewing tobacco, betel nut is held in the mouth and is quite surprising if you have never seen it.

I'll never forget my very first betel nut encounter. I could not take my eyes off our patient's mouth. Her lips, gums, and even teeth were deep red and it was difficult to determine the cause. When I asked my Thai sister what the cause was she paused, glanced at her fellow Thai sisters, and giggled, "it is culture."

"Culture" is right. 

Betel gum, consists of three main ingredients: bai plu leaf (betel leaf), limestone paste (calcium hydroxide, made from baked sea shells) spread thinly on the leaf, and betel nut (areca nut) which grows in bunches similar to grapes. Often tobacco is added to the betel gum, or used afterwards as a "teeth scrub" to freshen the mouth. Depending on preferences, other spices are added as well. Everything is pounded together, usually with a wooden or brass mortar first and then put into the mouth. A bucket or basket is usually close by, for the chewer to spit in. The aroma is pleasant, a bit like menthol, and younger Thais will tell you when they smell it they think of their grandparents. 

I never encountered any discussion of betel nut in my research or preparation for my trip.  Like most cultural education, however, nothing compares to actually seeing and experiencing culture first hand.

"A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people."  Mahatma Gandhi

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