24 Mar2009

A Nicotine High

by Marketman


My first close up with betel nut occurred some 30 years ago, while as a high school student, I spent a few days in Banaue, Bontoc and Sagada and observed a large segment of the population chewing on betel nut, tobacco and whatever else they pleased, before spitting it out onto the ground. Everyone’s teeth and gums looked like they had “subbed” for dracula the night before, or had some sort of evil gum disease. :) So I was intrigued when I came across two tables with the paraphernalia for our native nicotine high at the Murcia market. Besides whole tobacco leaves, there were betel nuts in various stages of “ripeness”, betel leaves, rolled and coiled tobacco, and apog (that white powder they add to the concoction before chewing it).


Betel nut fruit in various stages of ripeness…


Tightly wound tobacco leaves…


Betel leaves, coiled into cones, ready for their mixture of natural nicotine…


A bird’s eye view of the average customer, in their 60’s-80’s; a sunset industry, I suspect.



  1. Rhea says:

    Now I know. Betel Nut pala name nun. A few older women in our village in Bacolod use this for their “mama” [stress on the second syllable]. You were able to aptly describe how they use this. Before today, I only knew this plant/ fruit as “bunga”. Thanks MM.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 4:07 pm


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  3. B says:

    Betel nut is a narcotic, it makes your throat really dry and sometimes makes it feel like it is shutting. It’s very very astringent.

    Before tabaco was widespread, Filipinos (like most Southeast/South Asian places) chewed more betel than they consumed tabaco. There were various attempts at a betel nut monopoly by the government, but didn’t work due to their backyard cultivation.

    The culture surrounding betel is really rich :)

    Mar 24, 2009 | 4:22 pm

  4. sonnysj says:

    this post reminds me of our beloved Inang – my maternal grandmother who passed away more than 20 years ago at a ripe age of 97. God bless her soul.
    she would chew the betel nut concoction, we call it ‘nga-nga’ and smoke filterless Leybana (hope i spelled it correctly) in between. considering how long she lived despite countless cigarettes she had plus the nicotine from the ‘nga-nga’, would it mean that the tabacco back then was ‘healthier’ than the ones we have now? :)

    Mar 24, 2009 | 4:25 pm

  5. ntgerald says:

    Strictly speaking, it is areca nut and betel leaf, lime, and pieces of tobacco leaf.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 4:29 pm

  6. Jun b says:

    I remember the lolo’s and lola’s in every house in the province during school vacation and they will kiss you saying so cute boy :) but deep inside your heart you want to scream because of the smell and the color of their teeth cause by chewing betel nut. Even here in Singapore the indians and Malays oldies are fond of this betel nut.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 4:37 pm

  7. chrisb says:

    We had Betel/Areca Palm growing in our garden up north although nobody in my family chewed it, it was purely decorative.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 5:02 pm

  8. Marketman says:

    ntgerald, thanks for that clarification… certainly more accurate than my description in the post… :)

    Mar 24, 2009 | 5:13 pm

  9. kakusina says:

    You have to be agile around betel chewing old folk. They spit the juice out which can turn your immaculate white rubber shoes to a rusty red. The bunga is mapakla. Never had the guts to try the lime/tobacco mixture.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 5:51 pm

  10. luna miranda says:

    my great-grandmother chewed “mama” until her late 90’s. do you think “mama” and longevity are connected?:D

    i thought the leaves are called “ikmo” or “buyo” in Ilonggo. “buyo” has medicinal use…i remember my grandmother placed warm buyo leaves on my forehead when i had a fever. i also heard from my lola’s cronies that “mama” strengthens the teeth and gum, and it’s also an aphrodisiac. i don’t know how it affects the oldies who love to chew this concoction.:D

    Mar 24, 2009 | 5:52 pm

  11. Celina says:

    Micronesians from Palau and Yap in the Pacific Islands still chew betel nut until now. Young and old chew them. From what I understand it gives the slight tingle which makes it addicting.The practice certainly stains the teeth very badly. The old people in Negros swear this prevented cavities. This must then be a practice among Pacific Islanders and not only in the Philippines.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 6:39 pm

  12. ntgerald says:

    Celina, I think it is even more widespread in India, where a lot of cases of cancer of the oral cavity and lips have been attributed to the practice.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 7:02 pm

  13. Maki says:

    my late grand-grand mother used to chew on those… she looked cute with colored teeth… i miss her T___T…

    Mar 24, 2009 | 7:42 pm

  14. lee says:

    Typical Murcia old folks chewing on this concoction they call mama’ (heavy lilt on the last “a,” i cannot find an English word that sounds like this) I remember the ground of Murcia tainted red with the betel spit. Gloria, my gradparent’s labandera, always chewed on this and had a weird orange smile.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 7:59 pm

  15. Gener says:

    UUUFFFF! I tried chewing them and i dont like it, its hot and will make you dizzy, besides the smell will stick to your nose, i wonder why many says that it will make teeth healthy? i cant see that besides i see a colorful tartar on it,and one thing i observed,continues chewing it makes the gum rounder and teeth flatter, see them the way they smile, they look funny…healthy fun as they say!

    Mar 24, 2009 | 9:32 pm

  16. Apicio says:

    Yes, a sunset industry, if ever there was one. A tray full of prepared ready-to-pop-in-the-mouth rolls of them were usually passed around wakes, among the gauntlet of gizzards
    set like an obstacle course you have to get through before you finally get to the actual object of your respect.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 10:11 pm

  17. betty q. says:

    The nut when taken in excess of like 30 gm.? can be lethal. Clinical studies have been made linking it to carcinogens. Tingling sensation (mild euphoria) as a side effect…makes it addicting as well. What do you think, Doc Connie C.?

    Mar 24, 2009 | 11:24 pm

  18. Diwata08 says:

    We lived in a gold mining island in Papua New Guinea for 12 years. Every local chewed Betel Nut on the island but they had to ban its use at work because of it’s narcotic content. They used to invite me to KAIKAI BUAI (chew betel nuts) with them. Never had the guts to try it. You can go the this WikiHow site to learn how to kaikai buai. (By the way, you may use the husk to brush your teeth with when you are done chewing). http://www.wikihow.com/Chew-Betel-Nut-in-Papua-New-Guinea

    Mar 24, 2009 | 11:41 pm

  19. Katrina says:

    There is a Thai street food snack called miang kham (http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2007/04/thai_bites.html) that uses betel leaf. When I first heard about it, I was curious as to whether the betel leaf would cause a high or a red-dye effect like the local nganga does. But when I got to try it in Bangkok, it really just tasted like a leaf and didn’t have any unusual effect at all. I very much enjoyed miang kham, in fact. So I guess it’s the nut that does all the “work.” I don’t see miang kham at most Thai restaurants in Manila, but I think they serve it at Silk in Serendra.

    Mar 25, 2009 | 12:47 am

  20. Connie C says:

    Hi Betty Q. You are not visiting your mailbox nor responding to my emails….not necessarily food related.
    Yes, chewing nganga increases the incidence of cancer of the mouth, one ingredient must potentiate the other (as chewing tobacco has been shown to do this too). Thank God less and less people are doing it.

    Reminds me of a scrawny tour guide in India who must have chewed more betel nut concoction than chapatis. He had this orange smile too which was distracting.

    Mar 25, 2009 | 2:13 am

  21. Maria Clara says:

    Stress is part of day-to-day life. Good to know there is a stress-reliever available and accessible at affordable price and convenient to most folks in the area. They have to have something to relieve them from the toll of daily living or make them feel life is worth living. I believe the tobacco is the booster and apog is the catalyst of the fix. I am not in the age bracket mentioned above but time goes so fast I will pretty soon fall into that category and when the time comes I know where to get my fix at the local markets. Yes, Katrina, I know the Thai food you are talking about it is really good. I tried the corrupted version with lettuce wraps same filling it is not as good as the one with betel leave wraps.

    Mar 25, 2009 | 2:26 am

  22. ted says:

    I’m very aware of this practice back in the old days, my lola does this and the only time she stopped was when her dentist took out all her teeth and gave her dentures.

    She would pound a small amount of the nut on a small mortar and pestle, and wrap it with the leaf together with the apog, and chew on it and Spits the red juices on the ground everywhere ;-)

    Mar 25, 2009 | 2:41 am

  23. fembot says:

    Mar 25, 2009 | 4:11 am

  24. Danny says:

    We called it “bua for the nut and gawud for the leaves” in Ilocos and I had my share of them when I was younger. I remember using the husk as a toothbrush. The green one gives out more toxin, it gives you a good buzz lol. We were told that it makes your teeth stronger if you chew. They even sell these nuts and leaves in Hawaii since there’s a lot of Ilocanos there. I love reading your articles, it’s so diverse that all walk of filipino lives has some to look back.

    Mar 25, 2009 | 4:39 am

  25. evelinago says:

    I did the same – chewed on bua when I was in elementary and high school. We have a Bua tree that looks like a skinny coconut tree in front of our house in La Union. I stopped when an elderly aunt died of mouth cancer related to her fondness of chewing betel nut.

    Mar 25, 2009 | 6:36 am

  26. millet says:

    i love the Thai tidbit that has fried shallots, peanuts and lots of other good stuff rolled up in betel leaves. I wonder if the leaves have the same properties as the nuts? They did not taste anything out of the ordinary, and I guess they could have made them using any other edible leaf, although betel leaves are pretty.

    Mar 25, 2009 | 6:44 am

  27. M says:

    in panay island, they boil 3 betel nuts in 1 liter of water. the water comes out dark if you use tap water and lighter in color if you use the bottled kind. no bitter taste, just like diluted tea. if you drink at least 2 glasses a day (usually with lunch and dinner), it is said to lower blood sugar of diabetics. that’s why, when you buy them in the market, it is always out of stock since people have found another purpose for it.

    Mar 25, 2009 | 11:41 am

  28. Marketfan says:

    What is the apog for, does anyone know?

    Mar 25, 2009 | 11:50 am

  29. S says:

    No, I don’t think it’s a sunset industry. A lot of younger people in Quezon are crazy for this! Much cheaper than cigarettes.

    Mar 25, 2009 | 11:58 am

  30. marissewalangkaparis says:

    Our lolas called some of that nganga. And the black cigarettes were La Yebana..i think. Yes,when I used to frequent Honolulu,there was a mall with a lot of Ilocanos and the lolas were chewing these betel nuts and ngangas.
    This was so common in the lola times….

    Mar 25, 2009 | 7:25 pm

  31. noes says:

    my grandpa used that as nganga, just like marissewalangkaparis said.

    Mar 25, 2009 | 8:57 pm

  32. Joanie says:

    I grew up in Bicol and I remember my dad and his sister chew this stuff. They call it nga-nga. I still remember the whole process on how they make it. But I hate seeing them spit.

    Mar 26, 2009 | 12:55 am

  33. hungrycurious says:

    I remember an old relative (cousin or brother of my lolo i think) who was into this stuff, aside from smoking tobacco leaves everyday. I called him Lolo Odor =p

    Mar 26, 2009 | 11:07 am

  34. teth says:

    I also remember my lola with that! She died at 88, but sadly it was linked to mouth/throat cancer. Tama an sabi ni Doc Connie “Yes, chewing nganga increases the incidence of cancer of the mouth, one ingredient must potentiate the other (as chewing tobacco has been shown to do this too).” The doctors said it was because of the “nganga”, we call it ugbas in Bicol.

    Mar 27, 2009 | 10:21 am

  35. Ryce says:

    Hi! Where could I possibly buy betel nuts here in Manila?


    Mar 18, 2010 | 12:51 pm

  36. Judi says:

    Please tel me what is the white powder ingredients in the nganga… we needed the powder for herbal use… thanks

    Nov 3, 2010 | 4:32 pm

  37. werty says:

    what is important of chewing momma,’muma'( betel Nut) in the Philippines especially in Cordillera region. doe’s any one know ^^

    Feb 12, 2011 | 1:47 pm


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