Sat, Jun 23, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Intoxicating flowers

Betel nut flowers are a Taiwan delicacy, but be aware that they might provide you with more than just a good source of dietary fiber

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Stir fried betel nut flower looks attractive and inviting, but should be consumed only in small quantities.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Few foods come with as many health caveats as betel nut, the chewing of which remains closely associated with Taiwanese culture despite strenuous government effort to discourage the practice. The betel nut has psychoactive substances that promote its use as a stimulant, and it is sold around Taiwan, most famously by betel nut beauties, scantily clad women who are displayed in glass shop fronts.


The beauties have gained Taiwan some international notoriety, but apart from the sexual exploitation inherent in this manner of marketing, the chewing of betel nut is also closely associated with oral and other cancers and its use generally acknowledged as a health hazard.

That said, it remains a highly valuable crop and huge areas are dedicated to its cultivation, particularly fragile hillside lands in southern Taiwan, where it is responsible for server environmental degradation. It is widely accepted as a major culprit in a number of devastating mud slides that have destroyed lives and communities. It’s high value means that efforts to curb the planting of betel nut around Taiwan have had limited effect and it is still a major feature of scenery in southern Taiwan.

Overall, there is really not much of an upside to betel nut as a commercial crop. Nevertheless, one culinary curiosity does emerge from this harmful agriculture. This is the betel nut flower (檳榔花), which is sometimes found on the menus of Taiwanese eateries dealing in local specialties and the cuisine of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

Despite the notoriety of the betel nut and its close association with Taiwan culture, betel nut flower is not a regular feature in the supermarket vegetable aisle. It has a relatively short season around this month, and is most likely to be found in traditional markets. In restaurants, it is usually served either stir fried or as a cold dish, appreciated for its crunchy texture.

The reason that the government seeks to discourage the chewing of betel nut is for the simple fact that this habit can cause cancer, particularly of the mouth. The fact that it remains popular is due to its effects as a powerful stimulant, and despite best efforts, remains popular, particularly among Taiwan’s working class who use it to get thought the physical demands of manual labor or soul-crushingly long hours behind the wheel of long haul trucks.

It is no coincidence that major highway interchanges in southern Taiwan remain a focal point for the betel nut beauties, providing the double whammy of sexual titillation and drug-induced vitality. Cancer, the gradual disintegration of teeth, foul breath, a diseased mouth and throat, can all seem like a high price to pay for a momentary high.

Despite its ill effects, like many expats in Taiwan, I have tested its psychoactive properties as part of the “Taiwan experience.” For myself, a single test was enough to put any notion of establishing solidarity with the Taiwan working class through the participation in the betel nut ritual behind me.

Others have found betel nut to be an interesting and exciting experience, so I will not seek to judge on this issue, but it should be emphasized that regardless of the kind of high you can get from betel nut, the powerful alkaloids it contains will certainly not do you any good in the long run. Betel nut is most often sold with flavoring agents such as slacked lime that (slightly) improve its flavor, but which have terrible effects on oral health and hygiene.

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