I’m standing by the side of the road in Taipei, somewhat red in the face, wondering if I’m about to have a heart attack – and a tad concerned re what the blooming heck I’m going to tell the insurance company if I do.
It wasn’t quite what I was expecting when I decided that one the things I had to do in Taipei
So, here’s how I got there.
What is Betel Nut?
Betel nut is a stimulant.
It’s used in Taiwan, and other countries in Asia and India, pretty much the same way we use coffee or Red Bull in the west – to give you a bit of a lift if you’ve got a long day or need to stay awake at night.
To get the buzz, you chew the leaf and the nut together until you release the juices inside. These contain the active ingredient known as arecholine – which peps you up.
I’d heard about ‘betel nut babes’ – pretty women in skimpy dresses who sold the betel nuts in booths out in the countryside, what I didn’t realise though was that Taipei city was full of betel nut sellers too – and I’d walked past about 20 betel nut shops while wandering.
The shops are marked by a large spoke-like sign that flashes as it gets dark. I’d been happily photographing these because I liked the lights having no idea what they were!
Admittedly, there were also no ‘betel nut babes’ to give me a clue though as, in an attempt to make betel nut chewing less appealing, those who sell the nuts in Taipei city have to wear more covered up outfits.
Thankfully, on this trip I wasn’t buying my own betel nuts so my inability to spot the shops didn’t matter.
I was eating them as part of the Xinyi Backstreets tour run by food tour company Taipei Eats and, I admit, it was the main reason I wanted to go on the tour.
Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the tour was ace – we wandered around a local market, ate the nicest scallion bread I found all trip, got a bao, ate braised pork rice, had soup dumplings and lots, lots more – but to me, the betel nut tasting was the big draw.
Which brings me to the point where I’m standing outside the betel nut shop in the middle of Taipei going
What Happens When You Chew Betel Nuts?
Our guide gave us a quick lesson
Get the nut and bite off the top, then give it a chew for a bit.
A bright orange liquid will come out, spit that out (into a handy cup please, spitting betel juice into the street is illegal in Taipei as it stains everything it touches) and keep chewing until your saliva goes white again.
Now, this is the point when I did something rather stupid.
See, knowing I was likely to blog about eating the betel nut, I wanted a photo of me eating the betel nut and all the orange teeth that come with it. However, a) I am the worst selfie taker in the world and b) chewing something to a pulp is not a pretty look, so it took me a while to try and shoot something usable.
During this time, I shoved the chewed up betel nut and all it’s stimulating juices into the side of my cheek. Totally forgetting that one of the fastest ways to get something into the body is via the thin skin of the mouth! Can you say complete and utter doofus!
Well, I couldn’t because by this point my mouth was slightly numb.
Then there was a quite nice warming sensation, which rapidly turned into an
Then my heart started racing, but also felt a bit like it had quadrupled in size and was pressing on my chest.
It wasn’t exactly the nicest feeling in the world. For about 60 seconds, I was thinking ‘o-oh, I might have been a bit stupid here.’ I don’t even drink coffee normally!
Thankfully my heart rate started to calm down after about a minute and the heat in my face subsided. Turning to the rest of the group, I mentioned that I hadn’t found it the most pleasant experience of my life. ‘You do look rather pink,’ said one of the others kindly!
Now, I have to admit that my reaction to the nut was super extreme – other people felt nothing, a couple of others got a nice relaxing buzz, one or two more said their heart had sped up – but no other idiot had been stupidly taking selfies of them eating it though, so, don’t do that bit kids!!!
Collecting up our orange spit stained cups and popping them in a nearby bin, our tour guide told us it was time to move on – to the shop around the corner selling stinky tofu, normally thought of as the worst thing you can consume in Taipei. Yeh, sorry smelly tofu stuff, you’ve got a little green rival for your crown there.
Betel Nuts Are Bad – Mmkay.
Mind you, having a bad betel nut experience is probably a good thing.
See, not only does all that orange juice stain your teeth, betel nut is carcinogenic and strongly linked to a severe form of oral cancer – so it’s not a habit you want to pick up.
The dreadful health side effects is just one reason why the Taipei government is doing all it can to try and encourage betel nut farmers to grow other crops and get the betel nut babes other work.
While I normally don’t like it when traditions disappear, I have to admit this is probably one that does need to be discouraged – so, if the idea of bright orange spit and a totally legal faintly numbing buzz is on your list of must-dos in Taipei, you might want to give it a try while you still can – just be quick with the selfies!
What to Read Next
If eating betel knife wasn’t daring enough for you to try, how about being massaged with a knife? This is also a Taiwanese thing to do and there’s a few places in Taipei to give it a try. Here’s what happened when we tried knife massage.
Most people visiting Taipei also visit Taipei 101 and, if you’re looking for some fun things to do around there, perhaps while you wait for your entry time, have a look at our Taipei 101 guide here.
If you’re travelling solo we also have a second list with a few things that work particularly well for solo travelers in Taipei.
Lastly, if your interested in other quirky things we’ve consumed you might want to check out what happened when we drank kava in Florida – it’s like being a duvet.
Who Writes Differentville?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author living in Sydney.
My travel articles have been published in titles including The Australian, Body & Soul at the Sunday Telegraph, RAC Horizons, Jetstar magazine and more.
I like the weird, the wonderful and anything that makes me jump and down with glee like I’m about three. That’s what you’ll find here.