Our intrepid cultural explorer goes out on a limb this week to test the mythical powers of the mlu.
Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, of course, but for someone who grew up watching Colgate commercials, the charms of the betel-stained smile can be difficult to understand. I had heard that in ancient Asian societies (and in some isolated parts of the world even now) the blackened teeth and garish red lips that one gets from regular chewing of betel nut was considered to be a sign of great beauty. Though that no longer seems to be the prevailing attitude in Siem Reap, many elderly women in the surrounding rural areas continue to gnaw the leafy concoction, so I sought out a few to school me in the allures of betel.
Some basics first: betel nut is actually not betel or a nut. The folded leaf comes from the betel plant (mlu in Khmer), a vine that looks a little like ivy on steroids. But the hard part, the “nut,” comes from a different plant altogether, the areca tree, a spindly palm that looks like it has bunches of green and orange grapes hanging in place of coconuts. These fruits can be eaten fresh or dried in the sun to reach the consistency of a nut. But it’s only when combined with betel leaves smeared with limestone paste that it produces those signature streams of scarlet saliva.
As I chewed some betel during a hot afternoon in Kouk Tnot Village, Grandma Han (65-year-old betel enthusiast) enumerated some of the benefits that I could expect to enjoy. First of all, it would apparently make my teeth stronger. Despite the blackened nubs that are a sign of serious chewers, this claim does, in fact, have some merit, since it has been used in Chinese herbalists’ tooth powders for centuries. It also explains why older women continue to chew while most Khmer have given up the practice. One of Grandma Han’s friends with very few teeth left lamented the fact that she hadn’t started chewing in time, and I was relieved that I was getting an early start.
Grandma Han went on to tell me that it would improve my breath. Here, too, I could see the logic. The wad of leaf and areca initially had the flavor of bitter sticks mixed with tremendously unripe fruit, but this eventually gave way to a vague mintiness. Even so, I would still opt for Altoids in preparation for a hot date.
Primarily, though, Grandma Han said that her ten bundles of betel per day helped her to relax and forget her worries. I knew that areca had a mild narcotic effect, but I had heard it described as similar to drinking a cup of coffee. The heightened awareness of caffeine, however, was not what Grandma Han nor I experienced while chewing. A few minutes after spitting out the wad of plant matter, I felt a lightheaded dreaminess that made journalistic note taking suddenly seem unappealing and unnecessary. This effect, Grandma Han explained, was why it is always good to offer a neighbor some betel if they happen to be angry at you. Not long after, however, I began to experience some tingling in my extremities that was not altogether pleasant, and I opted to turn down the additional kind offerings of betel from other grandmothers.
Though I left the village feeling indebted to the generosity and advice from Grandma Han, she didn’t succeed in fostering a love for betel in me. I think that perhaps her strongest reasons for chewing betel have to do with attachments to a culture that is not my own. At my wedding, my groom will probably not offer betel to my parents as a sign of love and loyalty. When I reach middle age, my mother will probably not advise me on the optimum moment to start chewing betel in order to preserve my teeth. And I will probably never inherit a hundred-year-old betel cutter from my grandmother the way that Grandma Han did. My first foray into the world of mlu might be my last; a love of betel may be one thing that simply can’t be taught.