Betel Nut From Sumba

Betel Nut From Sumba (Image courtesy of MacKenzie Davey) – Travel through Sumba and Timor and you can’t avoid the random splodges of red residue that liberally decorate the pavements and bus aisles of this region, or the villagers’ foaming, scarlet mouths.

The substance behind the stain is betel nut, or sirih pinang, a mildly intoxicating stimulant that provides a nicotine-like or espresso-esque buzz and suppresses appetite. It’s also carcinogenic – levels of mouth cancer are very high in societies that use the gear. The nut itself, which is large and oval-shaped, is actually the seed of the graceful betel palm tree.

Chewing betel is a statement of adulthood, and the three parts that make up the ‘mix’ that are chewed together have symbolic meaning. The green stalk of the sirih represents the male, the nut or pinang the female ovaries, and the lime (kapor) the sperm. It’s the lime that causes the characteristic flood of red saliva in the mouth.

Betel nut traditionally played an important role in negotiation and discussion between different clans, and would always be offered to visitors as a gesture of welcome.

If you’re offered betel nut, it’s best not to refuse it – just put a little in your pocket, or give it a go. Unless you’ve been masticating sirih for years, it’s highly likely you’ll find it absolutely vile: its flavour is very bitter and its consistency gritty.

Betel nut also creates an amazing amount of saliva, so get your gobbing head on as it’s certainly not something that you’ll want to swallow.

If you do make an effort, you’ll find that sirih-chewing is a great way to interact with the locals, and you’re sure to elicit cackles of delight from the old ladies.

Happy Green Travels!

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