originalDating back to 7000 BC, Betel leaves or Piper Betel is one among those oldest divine herbs bestowed to mankind. Besides numerous health benefits, these sacred leaves are symbol of status and hospitality for greeting honor guests in some areas in Asia, including Indonesia.

By : Nia S. Amira
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To most parts of Indo­nesia region, betel chewing is an impor­tant tradition repre­senting the respect of people to other.

Betel chewing is often called betel service and offering betel service to honor guests in Suma­tra is a common courtesy that can “break the ice” in formal occasion when we must decide something important. Accord­ing to the tradition, one should not forget to prepare a betel service when discussing mar­riage proposal. It is recom­mended to do betel chewing to everyone comes in family’s gath­ering, no matter if he never gets used to do this as it is kind of respect to the host. Normally, the agreement goes suc­cessful after a betel service and we can see everyone has big laugh symbolizing the ac­cord of final decision. The women will serve the food and beverages later on.

“ In Java, elder women usually do this betel chewing in order to have strong teeth and to avoid toothache, ” said Mbah Sopiah, a 60 year old Javanese woman who sells herbal materials in traditional market in De­pok, West Java.

In Bali, it represents Balinese trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Wisnu.

How to chew the betel?

We need a set of betel chewing ingre­dients namely betel leaf, areca nut, slaked lime, cathecu, and tobacco. Prepare a brass goblet to spit the red liquid after chewing the betel. All the materials can be bought in traditional market.

Take a fresh betel leaf, put a tiny slaked lime, areca nut, cathecu and tobacco for flavouring, then wrap and chew them until the teeth go to red. The effect of chewing be­tel leaf and areca nut together is relatively mild and even could be compared to that of drinking a cup of coffee.

Betel chewing tradition in Indonesia has symbolization in each of the ingredients; betel leaf symbolizes down-to-earth and re­spect to other; slaked lime is for pure heart and honesty due to its white color but in one condition, it can be transformed more agressive and anger due to its chemical re­action that can destroy thing.

Catechu symbolizes persistence as it tastes bitter and will take time to obtain the essence during the chewing process. We can say, one must be patient before reach­ing something. Areca nut is the symbol of good person in attitude, honest and having dignity. Open minded and persistent when doing something, this can be seen from the characteristic of the areca nut tree –high straight but having huge of fruit trunks. While tobacco symbolizing patience and sacrifice as we all know that tobacco has also bitter taste.

For scientist, the habit of betel chew­ing has many harmful effects on teeth and is carcinogenic to humans but according to the tradition, betel chewing is important in relationship to every sphere of human’s life including social, culture, and religious mat­ter.

In Papua, John, a 28 year old taxi motor driver in Sentani traditional market chews the betel just like he chews the gum, and people will provide areca nut along with the tree’s trunk in a wedding reception.

A group of kids in Mandahara district in Jambi, southern part of Sumatra tapping areca nut then collecting them in a plastic bowl as they will earn IDR 1000 per bowl. They seem to be happy doing their informal job and with that little money they can buy anything they need themselves.