Betelnut: Mama'on


Cluster of Betelnut The Betelnut also called Pugua or Mama'on by Guamanians are 'palm nuts' from the areca tree. The scientific name for the tree is 'Areca catechu' and resembles a thin coconut palm tree. These hard nuts are chewed casually like chewing gum by islanders and is a permanent feature of the cultures of the Pacific. Nut chewing is definitely an acquired habit more commonly passed down from grandparents (called guelo) to grandchildren.

Frequently, it is chewed with the betel leaf, a fresh green peppery tasting condiment. The leaf is called pupulu and different species from each island are different in taste. Betelnuts are chewed and harvested by millions of people from India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines, Marianas, American Samoa, Beleau, Bangladesh. The trees are found growing in moist ground and produce prodigous clusters of green fleshy nuts which mature into yellow and then brown hard nuts.

Depending on species, the nut sizes vary from thumbnail to fist size and the kernel (nut) is surrounded by husk. Chamorros or Guamanians have been consuming betelnut or pugua for thousands of years as evidenced by archeology. The activity is a cultural link to the past lifestyles of early chamorros.
Betelnut with lime and Cutter

Islanders prefer the hard reddish nut variety called "ugam" for its fine granular texture. When the red pugua nut is not in season, the coarse white variety "changnga" is eaten as an appropriate alternative. The nut is sliced using a specialized cutter {shown in the photo} called "tiheras pugua". Citizens of Micronesia (Islanders from the 'Freely associated Island Nations' which occupy an area larger than the U.S.) also partake in this custom but many prefer a different soft betelnut species which is succulent or gelataneous.

For the seasoned chewer, 'amaska' i.e. the chewing tobacco brand "Mickey Twist" is mixed with the nut and leaf. For the brave at heart, 'afuk' or lime powder is also incorporated into the chewing experience. The catalytic Lime is an alkaline white powder residue (calcium oxide) or paste (calcium hydroxide) which results from cooking coral over an intense bonfire for several days.

Pupulu Pepper Leaves

Chewing pugua is an age old tradition. Islanders do not comprehend why they chew it let alone in combination with other additives {as with the pupulu leaves in the photo}. The pugua is combined with the betel leaf which comes from a tree-climbing vine (piper betle) of the pepper family. The shiny green leaf is heart-shaped, and about the size of the palm of your hand. Its essential oil contains a phenol (betel-phenol). It is part of being Chamorro {taotao tano} and is an inherent feature of social gatherings or fellowship which imbues the spirit of family goodwill to strangers.

D. Stern and Douglas B. Hanson, Forsyth Institute for Advanced Research, Boston, analyzed the microscopic and chemical nature of prehistoric betel-stained teeth from Guam. While betel-chewing (Areca nut, sprinkled with slaked lime and wrapped in a Piper betel leaf which produces a very bitter and sharp tasting chewable poultice) results in heavily stained and worn teeth, it prevents cavities from forming.

Their investigation revealed that structural and elemental changes occur in the enamel of betel-stained teeth of Chamorus during the Latte Period, a thousand years ago which results in anti-cavity properties of betel-chewing. The cultural habit endures to this day.

June 22nd 1686. A New Voyage Round the World by William Dampier [English pirate visiting Guahan]. THE BETEL-NUT, AND AREK-TREE.

The betel-nut is much esteemed here, as it is in most places of the East Indies. The betel-tree grows like the cabbage-tree, but it is not so big nor so high. The body grows straight, about 12 or 14 foot high without leaf or branch except at the head. There it spreads forth long branches like other trees of the like nature, as the cabbage-tree, the coconut-tree, and the palm. These branches are about 10 or 12 foot long, and their stems near the head of the tree as big as a man's arm. On the top of the tree among the branches the betel-nut grows on a tough stem as big as a man's finger, in clusters much as the coconuts do, and they grow 40 or 50 in a cluster. This fruit is bigger than a nutmeg and is much like it but rounder. It is much used all over the East Indies. Their way is to cut it in four pieces, and wrap one of them up in an arek-leaf which they spread with a soft paste made of lime or plaster, and then chew it altogether. Every man in these parts carries his lime-box by his side and, dipping his finger into it, spreads his betel and arek-leaf with it. The arek is a small tree or shrub, of a green bark, and the leaf is long and broader than a willow. They are packed up to sell into parts that have them not, to chew with the betel. The betel-nut is most esteemed when it is young and before it grows hard, and then they cut it only in two pieces with the green husk or shell on it. It is then exceeding juicy and therefore makes them spit much. It tastes rough in the mouth and dyes the lips red, and makes the teeth black, but it preserves them, and cleanses the gums. It is also accounted very wholesome for the stomach; but sometimes it will cause great giddiness in the head of those that are not used to chew it. But this is the effect only of the old nut for the young nuts will not do it. I speak of my own experience. June 22nd 1686.
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