Betel leaf is a leaf from the betel plant, a creeper vine that belongs to the piperaceae family which includes pepper and kava, the bitter sedative herb from the Pacific Islands.
Betel originates in Southeast Asia, more specifically from the regions of India and Malaysia. There it is used for medicinal purposes as well as consumed as a recreational drug similar to chewing tobacco.
In Indian and Sri Lankan culture, a sheaf of betel leaves is offered as a mark of respect and auspicious beginnings, such as wedding ceremonies, New Year celebrations, and offering payment to astrologers and doctors. It is also commonly used in Ayurveda, a traditional Indian healthcare system that has a focus on herbal medicine.
This creeper reaches from 5 to 20 meters in length, looks like ivy from the appearance and way of climbing. Stems after some time are woody, and on them there are cleavage roots, stabilising the plant. Young stalks have a reddish-red colour. Betel leaves are evergreen, shiny and smooth, with a pale underside. In the kitchen, it is used to wrap in food, as in the case of Thai Miang Kham also it can be added to salads, including Nasi Ulam. It grows in Asia – from India to Indonesia – where it also plays a role in the Hindu religion (including wedding ceremonies).
How is betel leaf used in cooking?
Betel leaf is commonly used in a range of South Asian cuisines. There are many ways in which you can incorporate betel leaf in your cooking:
- It can be used to wrap meat or vegetables in a ‘spring roll’ style, for example, lemongrass beef wrapped in betel leaf. The food wrapped in betel leaf is then usually grilled or barbecued.
- Betel leaf can also be used similarly to a leafy green vegetable, in stews, salads, or soups.
- You can use betel leaf as a base on which food is served, for example, similarly to lettuce in san choy bow.
- Betel leaf can also be used similarly to a wrap, served with various fillings that can be stuffed inside and dipped into a sauce.
What does betel leaf taste like?
The flavour of betel leaf is quite bitter and peppery – similar to rocket but much sharper and stronger. It also has that familiar ‘leafy’ taste that most other leaves have. It will not overpower the flavour of other ingredients you choose to mix it with.
What are the health benefits of betel leaf?
Is there any purpose to wrapping food in betel leaf, you might be wondering? Besides looking cute and adding a splash of colour, betel leaf also has numerous health benefits that make it a handy accompaniment to foods.
- Analgesic: Betel leaf has powerful analgesic properties that make it useful in relieving pain. You can even use betel leaf topically for this purpose, for example, by crushing the leaf and applying it on the forehead to relieve headaches.
- Relieves constipation: Chew a few betel leaves on an empty stomach and the juice will help restore the pH balance of your stomach, easing stomach upset and helping control constipation.
- Stimulates digestion: Chewing betel leaves helps release saliva, which in turn provides the enzymes required to break food down and make it easier to digest.
- Good for oral health: Chewing on betel leaves refreshes the breath, cleans the mouth, and helps to prevent tooth decay. Of course, this is if you’re not chewing it with tobacco!
- Antiseptic: Betel leaf is rich in polyphenols and chavicols, both of which help provide protection from germs. You can also use it topically as an antiseptic by placing it on open wounds or cuts.
- Anti-inflammatory: Betel leaf has powerful anti-inflammatory compounds that can help reduce joint aches in people with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoporosis. You can also use betel leaves topically in this way by warming the leaves and tying them around affected bones and joints to reeduce inflammation and pain.
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