So here is the thing. I would never have found this topic interesting if wasn’t for my love for Miang Kham, a traditional Thai street snack I’m totally obsessed about. After eating the appetiser countless times at Thai restaurants in Singapore, I naturally decided to make my own version at home (which eventually even made into one of the recipes in my cookbook). Little did I know, however, I would have to learn the hard way that the peppery, earthy-flavoured leaf (and the dish’s essential ingredient) had an almost-identical nasty cousin called betel nut leaf, whose bitter taste is not for the faint hearted!
After bringing home from Singapore’s Tekka Market a bunch of what I thought was wild pepper leaves, as soon as I put the first bite in my mouth, I knew something was terribly wrong. Coming from the same “piper (or pepper) plant” family, both leaves are very similar in shape and colour, but if you look closely, the betel nut leaf is larger, thicker and more leathery than wild pepper leaf. On the other hand, the deep-green and glossy appearance of wild pepper green is more veiny and crinkly compared to its unpleasant cousin.
Betel nut leaves are not supposed to be swallowed, but chewed and then discarded. The leaf is used predominantly in South East Asia for its stimulant effects, a cheaper choice compared to tobacco, caffeinated drinks or alcohol. In Myanmar, I witnessed with my own eyes the heavy users of the plant. Their smiles revealed stained reddish-black coloured teeth, mouth and lips, and truth be told, first time I saw it scared the hell out of me! The addictive plant is not only used by those looking for a buzz or working long shifts, but by young children too. According to Mr Min, my local guide in Myanmar, the excessive use of the plant has been recently linked to oral cancer, with some countries even launching awareness campaigns to reduce the use of the drug.
When buying the edible plant, that is normally served enwrapping freshly sliced chilies, peanuts, limes, toasted coconut, among other Thai delights, look for the ones still attached to its long stems, and sold in large bunches.
In Singapore, the Thai supermarket at Golden Mile Complex stocks plenty of it, as well as every other ingredient you may need when cooking Thai recipes. In a recent visit to the market, I had a lovely auntie personally assisting me with my shopping list. It was basically a game of charades, since she spoke very little English – hand gestures, strange noises... it was only after I left, with my grocery shopping in tow that I realised Google Translate would’ve probably came in very handy. Well, there’s always next time.
Food image shot by Clara Luboff
Myanmar man shot by Fiona Stewart Gant