September 24, 2009

Betel Leaves or Sireh (Lou Yeh)

Just along the road to our old wooden house at Kung Ping Road/Brooke Drive in Sibu were two huge vines of sireh belonging to Haji Ibrahim. Every day my Malay neighbours (Hajjah and her in laws)would pluck the leaves for their daily gathering of makan sireh. Other neighbours had their own vines but they were not obviously by the roadside.

This scenario of makan sireh has been in my mind ever since. How nice and relaxing it was for the older Malay housewives to spend time together in their living room eating and gossiping with each other. It was their kind of destressing time or siesta time - without having to pay an astronomical sum for a spa treatment.

I remember the important day when my friend was to be engaged to a rare returned overseas university graduate (at that time most returned graduates would have brought along a foreign wife). The families had gathered together in her huge living room. So many sets of sireh eating equipment were taken out. The future husband and wife were not present in this parents only gathering. And they spent a good morning socializing this way making small talk. Finally my friend was engaged and the wedding day set. I was slightly amused by all the talk and the reddening of the teeth. But I was sporting enough to be with my friend on her important day. We were all hiding behind the wooden collapsible screen between the kitchen and the living room.

Later on in my life I saw lots of antiquated sireh containers (brassware) in longhouses and kampong houses. But the lustre of sireh eating was lost because by the 1970's cancer of the mouth was associated with betel chewing. Well that was that. However many betel addicts continued to chew the leaves.

Nevertheless very few people know how beneficial sireh leaves can be. For the indigenous people,the Indonesians and the Nyonyas sireh continue to be as mysterious and mystical as ever. Recently a group of Iban ladies updated me on the benefits of eating sireh leaves and why they are able to sell their leaves in the tamu very well. These photos are from their gardens.

The betel plant or sireh is a slender, aromatic creeper, rooting at the nodes. The branches of the plant are swollen at the nodes. The plant has alternate, heart-shaped, smooth, shining and long-stalked leaves, with pointed apex. It has five to seven ribs arising from the base; minute flowers and one-seeded spherical small berries. The use of betel leaf can be traced as far back as two thousand years. It is described in the most ancient historic book of Sri Lanka, Mahavasma, written in Pali.

Betel is a native of central and eastern Malaysia. It spread at a very early date throughout tropical Asia and later to Madagascar and East Africa. In India, it is widely cultivated in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Offering betel morsel (pan-supari) to guests in Indian subcontinent is a common courtesy.

An analysis of the betel leaf shows it to consist of moisture 85.4 per cent, protein 3.1 per cent, fat 0.8 per cent, minerals 2.3 per cent, fiber 2.3 per cent and carbohydrates 6.1 per cent per 100 grams. Its minerals and vitamin contents are calcium, carotene, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin C. Its calorific value is 44.

Recent studies have shown that betel leaves contain tannins, sugar and diastases and an essential oil. The essential oil is a light yellow liquid of aromatic odor and sharp burning in taste. It contains a phenol called chavicol which has powerful antiseptic properties. The alkaloid arakene in it, has properties resembling cocaine in some respects.

Healing Power and Curative Properties
Betel leaf has been used from ancient times as an aromatic stimulant and anti-flatulent. It is useful in arresting secretion or bleeding and is an aphrodisiac. Its leaf is used in several common household remedies.

Scanty or Obstructed Urination
Betel leaf juice is credited with diuretic properties. Its juice, mixed with dilute milk and sweetened slightly, helps in easing urination.

Weakness of Nerves
Betel leaves are beneficial in the treatment of nervous pains, nervous exhaustion and debility. The juice of a few betel leaves, with a teaspoon of honey, will serve as a good tonic. A teaspoon of this can be taken twice a day.

The betel leaf has analgesic and cooling properties. It can be applied with beneficial results over the painful area to relieve intense headache.

Respiratory Disorders
Betel leaves are useful in pulmonary affection in childhood and old age. The leaves, soaked in mustard oil and warmed, may be applied to the chest to relieve cough and difficulty in breathing.

In the case of constipation in children, a suppository made of the stalk of betel leaf dipped in castor oil can be introduced in the rectum. This instantly relieves constipation.

Sore Throat
Local application of the leaves is effective in treating sore throat. The crushed fruit or berry should be mixed with honey and taken to relieve irritating cough.

Applied locally, betel leaves are beneficial in the treatment of inflammation such as arthritis and orchitis, that is inflammation of the testes.

Betel leaves can be used to heal wounds. The juice of a few leaves should be extracted and applied on the wound. Then a betel leaf should be wrapped over and bandaged. The wound will heal up with a single application within 2 days.

The herb is also an effective remedy for boils. A leaf is gently warmed till it gets softened, and is then coated with a layer of castor oil. The oiled leaf is spread over the inflamed part. This leaf has to be replaced, every few hours. After a few applications, the boil will rupture draining all the purulent matter. The application can be made at night and removed in the morning.

A hot poultice of the leaves or their juice mixed with some bland oil such as refined coconut oil can be applied to the loins with beneficial results in lumbago.

Problem of Breast Milk Secretion
The application of leaves smeared with oil is said to promote secretion of milk when applied on the breasts during lactation.

The betel leaves are crushed and soaked in water. Women after giving birth would sit in a basin of warm water with betel leaves to cleanse their vagina and also to shrink the birth canal. Discharges would be cleared by such frequent soaking. In fact the Indonesian Government has endorsed this type of after birth cleansing.

Precautions: Cancer of the mouth and lips has been found to be more frequent in areas where the betel chewing habit is widely prevalent. Other ill-effects of pan-chewing like dyspepsia, pyorrhea, cancer of the tongue and cheeks have also been observed amongst excessive chewers.

Other Uses
Aphrodisiac: Pan-supari, especially the pan, is prescribed by Ayurvedic physicians as an aphrodisiac. Partly owing to its deodorant, aphrodisiac, and invigorating properties, pan-supari came to form a part of the ritual with which a wife welcomed her husband.

The betel leaves are chewed together with betel nut as a masticatory. In its simplest form, sliced betel nut is wrapped in a betel leaf, smeared with lime and chewed. Often though, a clove and other spices such as cinnamon and cardamom are added. When chewed after meals, it sweetens the breath and acts as a gentle stimulant.

(Caution : Please consult your own doctor before you chew any betel leaves!! Sarawakianaii)

sources :
b) wikipedia
c) oral tradition/history of Mrs. Ishmael, Kak Aminah and Haji Johari

my email :


Ann said...

My house in Embang road, It was like a farmlet, we had the LOU and the PENG LONG aka betel nuts. My Ah Kung chewed the PENG LONG, neat, and he had all his own teeth when he went to see his maker at 84.

Thanks for reminding. Yes, I remember Maggie, but haven't seen her for 35 years. Maggie didn't move in the house until I left.

The old people, they are all going off to a better place. I suppose like you say, CC Chang, Maggie's dad, your dad and my dad would be sitting down and drinking coffee and my dad just teh, and talking of the old times, ( if that is what they do.)

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Hi yes the older ones are going one by one.
I am surprised your grand dad chewed betel nuts!! I heard they make the teeth very strong. Nowadays many are chewing betel nuts to control their cholesterol.

Have you read "Five People You Meet in Heaven"? Great book.

Have a good weekend.

Ah Ngao said...

my late aunty is a betel nut chewer and she told me - its like chewing coca leaves,which i didn't believe because there was nowhere any coca leaves to be found in M'sia.i reckoned she meant it gives her some "high",haha..

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Ah Ngao

I think we can all collect a lot of "high" stories from our relatives who love chewing betel nuts and leaves.

Actually I know a chemical engineer (!) who loves the betel nut so much that cannot stand seeing some without buying a large number of them. I have never seen anything like that. But he does not chew the leaves.

Sometimes I put one or two pieces of the nuts in my mouth...just to pass time and make friends...hehehehe


Nang Chong Stories : Three Child Brides 1901 - 2019

 Three of the female family members of my maternal grandfather's family made the family history amazing. The family history started wi...