Betel nut, the seed of the Betel Palm (Areca catechu), has almost iconic status in Taiwan, where chewing it is often viewed as stereotypically Hoklo or Taiwanese behaviour. It’s also big business: some estimates claim the industry nets annual revenue of around NT$20bn. In Taiwan it’s particularly popular with truck drivers, who prefer its stimulating effects to coffee: the nut is wrapped in areca leaf, topped with slaked lime paste and chewed without swallowing. Its most celebrated by-product is the betel nut beauty (bīnláng xīshī), scantily clad girls hired to sell the nuts from glass-encased booths on roadsides all over the island. More ominously, betel nut is a known carcinogen: Taiwan has one of the highest rates of mouth and throat cancer in Asia, primarily as a result of chewing the nut.

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