James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Betel Juice

Betel Juice

Wrapped in leaves and smothered with lime, betel nut is one of the breakfasts of choice of the blue-collar crowd in many parts of Asia—a favorite for those who prefer the lift of a hunger-crushing, high-energy opiate over the fill of actual food. Betel nut is stronger than coffee and produces a thick red fluid that, when spat on the ground, looks like an instant crime scene. Despite the health risks and the corrosive effects on any mouth it touches, betel nut has remained a popular ‘snack’ in many parts of the world—especially those parts where food budgets are scarce.

I decided it was a good time to try it one early morning as I was standing among the hundreds of people filling the Chittagong Market in Bangladesh. To fill the hunger void, I bought a handful of nuts. As soon as I cracked down on the quarter-sized nut, the juice exploded, filling my mouth with a thick red liquid after a few bites.

I knew from previous experiences in Taiwan that betel nut can pack a serious punch. As I continued chewing, I started to sweat and my head felt light. The dizziness lasted for a minute or two before it gave way to a wave of energy. I walked around the market on an empty stomach, interacting with locals and taking photographs for two solid hours without once thinking about food.

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