Blood on the streets? – The red spitting habit

The first time we walk the streets of a Burmese city, we are shocked by many red stains on the ground. Has there been bloodshed from a violent street riot? Were the recent elections not as peaceful as we had heard on the news? After a few tense moments we relax again when we see the source of the red stain mania: An old man, standing at a corner has been chewing on something for quite some time and now turns away from us to spits a huge load of red saliva on the ground. He is one of the millions of Burmese betel chewers.

The betel nut (scientifically correct: areca nut) is not eaten by itself but instead served wrapped in a green betel leaf filled with other ingredients. At nearly every street corner there are stands serving this so called “Paan”. Paan is chewed as a stimulant and also has psychoactive effects.

To get a better understanding of Paan, we ask a very kind betel saleswoman at one of the many stands on Mandalay’s street sides to explain to us the details. Her small sales stand looks a bit like a magician’s hut. It is stuffed with many tiny, dented tin cans and dirty plastic boxes full of strong scenting ingredients. Stains of dried white paste from a big grey mortar cover the whole stand, including two postcard Jesus images at the window front. A sun bleached umbrella almost tips the stand over to the left side.

The seller shows us how to prepare the popular Paan in fast motion with her nimble hands. One betel leaf serves as wrapper for several ingredients:

  • Dried betel (areca) nut slices
  • Slaked lime paste (chunnam) – a white fresh paste made of limestone (calcium hydroxide), snail slime and water used to bind the leafs
  • Kachu paste – the extract of acacia trees is used to freshen the breath (btw. also used in licorice pastilles sold in Europe for the same purpose)
  • Chewing tobacco (optional)
  • Other spices (optional) – e.g. star anise, dried herbs, black incense grains, pickled tobacco leaves, cloves, rose colored coconut and much more of strong smelling “I really can’t guess what that is”.

The saleswoman puts all of this on the betel leaf and skillfully folds it into a small package. She hands it over to us as a present. We then give it a try and and chew on the whole thing before spitting out the red remnants. The taste is very intense. She has put many spices and lots of coconut in the green leafs. It reminds us of a very bitter toothpaste. Maria: Mmhhh, never again! Christian: Strange, but not too bad! Still, Maria is not allowed to take a picture of Christian’s beautiful teeth.

Paan has three main effects: It gives you a slight “high” from the betel nut (we did not feel much) and the tobacco (which we did not have in our samples), it stimulates your salivation and gives your saliva a deep red color. That’s that red stuff on the ground, also called “Buai Pekpek”, which many consider a public annoyance.

You can easily recognize a regular betel chewer by the deep red, almost blackish color of his or her teeth. In some ethnic groups in Myanmar, this is considered to be very beautiful. It is pretty weird to see a wide, black teethed grin for the first time. If you should consider to adapt such a look, be warned that betel nut chewing can also cause gum damage, tooth decay and oral cancer.

Better opt for a super cool, black-diamond gemmed rapper grill instead and get high on a good cup of extra strong cappuccino.

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