Supari. A Maldivian stimulant

Thinking: “the Maldives” is hard not to picture yourself with the refreshing Long Island. However, while planning a trip to this tropical country it is important to remember that alcohol consumption is permitted only in the hotels. As Muslim country the Maldives introduced prohibition. Indeed, in the evenings in the Male’s bars one can meet young fellows sipping mango smoothie, instead of beer. On the other hand, they like to smoke a cigarette or chew some supari, a stimulant popular in this part of the world.

Supari is made of plant known as Areca catechu, or betel palm. When I first saw it, I had a feeling it had something in common with a nutmeg. What misled me was aroma and characteristic white pattern visible after cutting it. In reality, betel and nutmeg are two different plants. However, they do have some things in common – stimulating properties and popularity in the rituals of South and South East Asia.

Betel nut have already been used for thousand years ago in Indonesia. Today it may be chewed on a daily basis by roughly 200 million people from East Africa to the Pacific Islands. The most often use of the betel is instead of coffee, tobacco, or… chewing gum. Similarly to coffee or tobacco it has stimulating properties and may be addictive. The Maldivians believe it is cleansing for teeth and strengthening for the gums. These effects are supported by betel’s presence in the Chinese medicine. Some people claim though, that its overuse may increase chances for oral cancer. It is also good not to swallow supari. It may end up with upset stomach. On the other hand, fruits of the areca palm are widely used in the dyeing industry as red pigment for the textiles. In India it is very popular to make jewellery and decorative articles.

My first experience with betel nut took place right after arrival to the Maldives. Together with Maldivian friend we went to the local diner on the Digura island, two and a half hours from Male by a speed boat. After consuming noodles with tuna and chili we were served with this:

What you can see on the plate are: sliced betel nut, betel leaf, lime on the plastic lid, clove, and the Indian spice Heera Panna (mixture of powdered fruits and vegetables, which sounds awful, but smells fantastic). One put lime, nut and clove on the leaf, sprinkle with Heera Panna, roll it and chew. Luckily, you spit it out anyway. Otherwise, I would commit my first cultural faux-pas…To be honest nothing surprised me with its taste: a betel leaf tasted like leaf, and the nuts in this form tasted like piece of wood, and lime reminded me of chalk.

However, it’s a different story with sweet supari, that you can buy in the supermarket. It is sold in colorful paper boxes, where you can find 46 small bags with ready-to-chew portion. As I noticed these bags were usually filling the pockets of my Maldivian friends, and the sweet supari always found its way to our mouth in different occasions. These processed betel nuts resembling little pebbles covered in syrup, which you spit out after couple of minutes of sucking and chewing.

They leave very nice and refreshing taste in the mouth. I have to admit, that I still keep a box of it at home in Warsaw. I love to help myself with a portion of supari when I have a sweat tooth, but currently-on-the-diet or I just feel like recalling myself the taste and smell of the Maldives.

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