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Arts & Culture

The Cultural Milieu of Makan Sirih

Makan sirih, also known as betel chewing is a custom that is believed to be over 2000 years old.

Words by
b-side staff
Location
Singapore

Text by Hera

Both a spiritual food and a mild narcotic, makan sirih held much ritual and social importance throughout the Malay Archipelago. The essential ingredients for makan sirih are areca palm seed, betel vine leaf and lime (calcium oxide); the Areca catechu palm and betel vine thrives in much of Southeast Asia and South Asia. The seed of the Areca berry, also called Areca nut or betel nut, provide the stimulant component. Lime, on the other hand, acts as an astringent and can be derived from freshwater shells, corals or lime mountains.

Photographs of workers at an Areca nut plantation, Singapore, collection of National Museum of Singapore. The Areca Catechu palm, once commonly found in Singapore and around Southeast Asia, is now a rarity. The palm requires little care and could grow both in cultivation and in the wild; once matured it can produce berries annually for the span of 30-60 years. (Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

Across the Malay Archipelago, many places reflect their previous connection with makan sirih. In Malaysia, the port of Penang used to be an important centre for the trade of makan sirih ingredients and thus derived its name from the areca nut, which in Malay can also be spelt as “pinang”. My grandmother was born in a seaside town in Indonesia called Pangkal Pinang, which means “Areca port”. There are also other cities and region in Indonesia named after the areca nut such as Tanjung Pinang (Areca cape) and Jambi (Areca nut in low Javanese). 

In present day, Malay and Indonesian languages retain a considerable range of expressions derived from the areca nut or betel leaves. One of the earliest Bahasa Indonesia/ Malay proverbs that I learnt was “bagai pinang dibelah dua”, translated as “like two halves of an Areca nut”. The metaphor of the young areca nut, which could be split into two perfectly symmetrical and similar halves describes a pair of equally beautiful and compatible young lovers or two people who look like each other. Makan sirih is an important marriage ritual and both the betel leaves and areca nut are important metaphors representing unions. “Meminang” means to ask in marriage while “pinangan” is a bethrothal. In a Malay wedding, two sets of flowers and betel leaves arrangements are exchanged, they are called sirih junjung from the groom’s side and sirih dara from the bride’s side. 

Traditionally, the social function of makan sirih went beyond fostering camaraderie; it is also a symbol of adat, the cultural code that governs life and spirituality. The betel set was ever-present in important meetings and negotiations. During the 16th century, Dutch accounts of West Java describe how the betel set was always placed in the centre during an audience with the King. The visibility of sirih sets in formal meetings and gatherings made them a marker of social status, thus much care and expertise are dedicated to the crafting of these beautiful objects. 

Sirih sets and accoutrements, highly regarded for their artistry and historical value, are important museum collections in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Typically, a set consists of a larger receptacle to hold Areca nut cutter made of iron and several smaller containers for powdered or slaked lime, areca nut, betel leaves, gambier and spices that can be added to taste. A pounder is a common addition to pre-masticate the wrapped sirih and alleviates chewing. A variety of materials and technique are used to construct and decorate these containers and pounders. Some of the oldest existing artefacts linked to betel chewing has been attributed to the Dong Son bronze age culture. They include spittoons and lime containers with elaborate ornamentations.

Lime container from Central Java, dated 1st century CE, bronze, collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. The container takes on the form of a geometrically stylised bird perched atop a circular decorated pedestal, its teardrop shape wings folded backwards neatly.

In Singapore, Peranakan women were known for their fondness of makan sirihSirih was served during domestic gatherings and in wedding rituals. The Chinese words for Areca nut retain phonetic similarity with its Malay counterpart, 槟榔, pronounced as “bīn láng” in Mandarin and “pin-nng” in Hokkien. The Chinese characters are also meaningful compound words: the left component in both characters contain the element “木” mù, implying that the characters refer to a plant. The right components give pronunciation and added meaning to the characters—the first “宾” bīn means guest and the second “郎” láng means sir. Read together they can be understood as “esteemed guest”.

Sirih set from Singapore, collection of National Museum of Singapore. It consists of a larger open receptacle with
a drawer made out of wood, which is adorned with gilding and lacquered floral motif. The smaller containers are made out of silver; shaped like a fruit, it is further decorated with chased leaf veins and alternating texture pattern. Sirih sets were considered important Peranakan heirlooms often passed from mother to daughter. (Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

The demand for betel sets between the 18th to early 20th century created a considerable market for copper and brass working artisans in Southeast Asia. Many Europeans were introduced to betel chewing upon arriving in Southeast Asia, however, the habit never took on a foothold in Europe. Nevertheless, European manufacturers also produced betel sets for export to the Southeast Asian market, which were well received as novel alternatives to locally made sets. 

Silver betel set made in Vienna, collection of the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. The external surfaces of the containers and box are decorated with floral volutes, while some of the interior surfaces are gilded.

Makan sirih used to shape both the cultural and natural landscape of Singapore and the Malay Archipelago through social practices, rituals, trade and agriculture. The practice used to be widespread but is being phased out, especially outside its ritual functions. The use of Tobacco is presently a commonplace and a more socially acceptable replacement, particularly as spitting and having stained teeth are now seen as a social taboo. There are also studies establishing the link between mouth cancer and betel chewing, thus the health risk associated with makan sirih complicates its future legacy and is one of the main reasons for its decline. The inevitable phasing out of makan sirih is a gradual severance from a previously pervasive cultural milieu. Nevertheless, some reverberations can still be felt in the present day through language expressions, place names and museum objects that continue to provide an apprehensive link with the past.

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