I am continuing with the Dravidian series. Though this counts as the fifth installment going by the title, it is in reality the seventh (taking into account the two posts I made under ‘The Kerala Connection’). And as luck would have it, Kerala and Malayalam are far from being done. I will be concentrating on food items for the time to come. That would, in keeping with the alphabetical order of the English language, bring us to the word ‘betel’. Before going to the plant itself, let’s have a look at the definition and etymology.

Definition (in Merriam-Webster): a climbing pepper (Piper betle) of southeastern Asia whose leaves are chewed together with betel nut and mineral lime as a stimulant masticatory

Origin and Etymology of betel: Portuguese bétele, from Tamil veṟṟilai; First Known Use: 1553

Definition (in Oxford): NOUN

1  The leaf of an Asian evergreen climbing plant, which in the East is chewed as a mild stimulant.
2 The plant, related to pepper, from which betel leaves are taken.

Origin: Mid 16th century: via Portuguese from Malayalam veṟṟila.

Etymology (in Online Etymology Dictionary): 1550s, probably via Portuguese betel, from Malayalam (Dravidian) vettila, from veru ila “simple leaf.”

The Betel Vine (Piper betle) is closely related to that other famous denizen of the Malabar Coast, the Black Pepper Vine (Piper nigrum). They belong to the same genus Piper, of the family Piperaceae.  It is a family that is of great medicinal and culinary importance, being the source of some of the most widely used spices, vegetables, flavoring agents and herbal concoctions. They have been utilized by people across the Old World, and New –  Kava (Piper methysticum, by the Polynesians), Lolot (Piper sarmentosum, by the people of Indochina), Ashanti Pepper (Piper guineense, in West Africa), and  Hoja Santa (Piper auritum, in Mesoamerica).

As is obvious, there is a slight confusion over the language from which Portuguese borrowed the word – Tamil or Malayalam. But the Dravidian root is under no doubt. The same goes for the Betel Vine. It is a climbing plant that was domesticated somewhere in South East Asia. An evergreen, woody perennial, its glossy, heart-shaped leaves are of great cultural and economic significance. Cultivated on well-drained soils, they are trained up long poles dug into the ground, and provided ample water and manure. Planted as cuttings before the monsoon, the vines take 18-36 months to provide their first yield. But they have a long lifespan, ranging from 20 to 50 years.

While botanists speculate the ultimate point of origin to be Malaysia, Betel Vine cultivation is a significant economic activity across tropical Asia. The leading producers are India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines. It is a highly labour-intensive activity. Within India, rising input costs, erratic rainfall, fluctuating rates and an increasing preference for chewing tobacco (gutkha) over betel leaf (paan) has hit farmers, driving down a once thriving industry. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have a flourishing export business, with premium grade betel leaves fetching handsome prices. Their chief use is as an edible wrapping for paan.

Paan is the Hindi word for betel quid – a combination of betel leaves, areca nut (from the Areca Palm – Areca catechu), slaked lime and other ingredients. Known for its stimulating properties, it is enjoyed by tens of millions of people across South Asia. Apart from being a source of public nuisance (in the form of paan spit that disfigures Indian markets, railway stations, and bus stands), it has also been implicated as a leading cause of addiction and mouth cancer (though the compound responsible for tumour formation has been identified with the areca nut). The brick red saliva that is produced during the process of chewing stains the mouth and teeth, an ubiquitous sight in countries such as Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The situation seems to be no different in Southeast Asia. Here paan is known as buai (New Guinea), nganga (Philippines), sirih (Indonesia and Malaysia), maak (Thailand) and kwun-ya (Myanmar). In fact, it is estimated that as much as a tenth of the world’s total population is given to chewing betel leaves. It has been an integral part of local culture in these countries, with elites developing elaborate customs around the practice. One example is the Bersirih tradition of the Malay Archipelago. Believed to be 3,000 years old, it has been observed by Malay, Javanese and Balinese peoples and encompasses the preparation (using knife, pestle, mortar), storage (in boxes of lacquer, brass, silver) and presentation (accompanied by ceremony and even dance) of sirih to revered guests.

South Asia also developed many varieties of paan. It was consumed across the length and breadth of the subcontinent, and with such frequency that the Berber traveller Ibn Battutah mentioned it in his 14th century travelogue. The country of Bengal used to cultivate Betel Vine for export to distant regions such as Kashmir. A class of Bengali peasants known as the Barai or Barui specialized in growing the vine on plots known as Barouj. Their name stems from the Sanskrit term Varajivi (that is betel vine growers). To their north and east live the Khasi, whose love for the betel leaf has pervaded their folklore. To the south, paan is known as killi in Telugu, thambula in Kannada, vetrrilai in Tamil,  bulath in Sinhalese and foah in Dhivehi. Betel quid and betel leaves have been presented to guests of honour as part of court ceremonial, wedding rituals, banquets and family gatherings.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, reproduces an illustration from the Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi (Book of Recipes), a 16th century work. The illustration shows the Sultan of Mandu, Ghiyas-ud-din Khalji (r. 1469–1500), being presented paan by his attendants. It is night time (as shown by the white night gown he is wearing). He sits on his stool, putting a betel quid in his mouth, while being fanned. A handmaid holds a golden bowl of betel quid. Another, seated next to him, holds a quid in her hand. In the foreground are flasks of wine. The Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi was a cookbook describing (with beautiful paintings) the different dishes cooked at the Sultan’s court (including paan). The illustrations have been preserved in digitized form by the British Library and Columbia University.