Betel nuts, one of the four famous Chinese medicines (It is said to expel wind, kill worms, remove phlegm, subdue bad odors, induce purification, and kindle passion.), are mainly produced in South China’s Hainan province, where the practice of planting betel nuts has existed for over 1,500 years. Hainan people have a long history with betel nuts, and the treat remains an important part of the local culture.
Betel nuts became well known as early as the Tang (618 to 907 C.E.) and Song (960 to 1279 C.E.) dynasties, when provincial officials used betel nuts as tributes to the royal court. Over the centuries, a unique betel-nut culture formed.
The tradition of betel chewing continues an important and popular cultural activity
Today, Hainan people still view betel nuts as a symbol of blessings and friendship. When guests arrive, the host first offers them betel nuts, and even those who don’t chew betel nuts accept them as a sign of respect.
For young people, betel nuts are tokens of love. When a young man decides to pursue a young woman, he first presents betel nuts to the girl’s family — a practice commonly known as “Fa Binlang (giving betel nuts).” The family’s acceptance of the betel nuts signifies their approval of the proposal. Betel nuts are important at the wedding ceremony, too: newlyweds distribute them to attending guests.
How to chew betel nuts
Chewing betel nuts is an old tradition for many Hainanese. In Sanya, one can see convenient stores selling fresh betel nuts on almost every street corner. The way locals eat them is quite complex. The fresh betel nut is sliced, wrapped in betel leaf, and mixed with edible lime to aid in the absorption of the nut’s active ingredients, arecaine and arecoline. Betel nuts come in different flavors. Usually they’re bitter at first, before delivering a pleasant buzz in the end. When chewed, the stimulant effect of the nut can be felt almost immediately and lasts for three to five hours.