Betel Nut: The Most Popular Nut in Papua New Guinea

Betel Nut

One of many interesting traditions of Papua New Guinea is the chewing of betel nut–the cause of countless, brilliant red-stained teeth and lips of the local men and women.

Betel nut, or what the locals call buai [boo-eye], grows in the tropical climates of South East Asia and is popular in the South Pacific Islands.

It can be found on every street corner in Papua New Guinea and is chewed as part of social occasions or as a part of everyday life.

Betel nut has a mild stimulant effect and in addition to reasons of tradition local people chew it for stress reduction, heightened awareness, and suppression of hunger.

Many foreign visitors try betel nut as a way to experience a part of the local Papua New Guinea culture. For many locals, it is a sign of friendship and respect. For example, if a visitor arrives at a local person’s house for dinner, the visitor will most likely be given betel nut as a welcome offering. In case you  are ever presented with such an honor, here are a few tips and tricks to living like a local:

1) Break the betel nut open by cracking the shell with your teeth. Take the meaty center out of the shell and start chewing it.
2) Chew the betel nut for 2-5 minutes. Do not swallow! Trust us on this.
3) Moisten and dip the mustard stick into the jar of lime powder.
4) Move the betel nut wad to the side of your mouth and then bite off the piece of mustard seed that has the lime powder on it. Don’t let the lime touch your gums or you’ll feel a burning sensation. Once again, trust us on this.
5) As you chew the mixture together, they will form a chemical reaction that will make your teeth and lips red and provide a mild stimulant.
6) Know that as you chew, spit out the fibrous residue of the nut as needed
7) Keep chewing until there is no more betel nut left. You may have a mild euphoric feeling because of betel nuts’ mild stimulant effects. Or if you’ve done it wrong-like many foreigners have done before you–well, you might feel absolutely nothing at all.

Betel nut is often compared to tobacco. It can be very addictive and habit forming. In many places in PNG you will find “no betel nut” signs that are similar to “no smoking signs.”

With all these steps, effects and risks- it becomes quite clear that this is a local’s only activity. Very few visitors actually practice chewing buai as they lack the social and traditional connection that the locals possess. If you want to abstain from chewing betel nut, but still keep some street cred, you could say “no kaikai buai” which means “I don’t chew betel nut” in Tok Pisin- Papua New Guinea’s main language.

In any case, whether you choose or refuse to chew, you now know a little more about the customs in Papua New Guinea.


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