Betel-chewing today is popular only among elderly Thais, particularly country women, but it used to be a much more widespread social custom, and a person’s betel tray set was once a Thai’s most prized possession and an indication of rank: royalty would have sets made in gold, the nobility’s would be in silver or nielloware, and poorer folk wove theirs from rattan or carved them from wood. A set comprises at least three small covered receptacles, and sometimes a tray to hold these boxes and the knife or nutcracker used to split the fruit.

The three essential ingredients for a good chew are betel leaf, limestone ash and areca palm fruit. You chew the coarse red flesh of the narcotic fruit (best picked when small and green-skinned) first, before adding a large heart-shaped betel leaf, spread with limestone-ash paste and folded into manageable size; for a stronger kick, you can include tobacco and/or marijuana at this point. An acquired and bitter taste, betel numbs the mouth and generates a warm feeling around the ears. Less pleasantly, constant spitting is necessary – which is why you’ll often see spittoons in old-fashioned hotels in Thailand, re-used as waste baskets. It doesn’t do much for your looks either: betel-chewers are easily spotted by their rotten teeth and lips stained scarlet from the habit.

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