Photo: kawee su/Shutterstock

From Tobacco to Tchat: What People Chew Around the World

by Keph Senett Nov 20, 2012
Four ways to partake in ritual, socialize, and get high wherever you are.
1. Betel nut

Produced: India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka
Throughout Asia, parts of East Africa
Active ingredients: Alkaloid arecoline, calcium hydroxide, allylbenzene compounds, nicotine
Effects: Stimulant, appetite suppressant, antiseptic, euphoria
Health effects: Areca nut used with tobacco is carcinogenic and can increase the chewer’s risk of cancer. Regular users frequently have red stains on their teeth, mouth, and gums.
Legality: Legal

Betel nut is the colloquial term used for an areca palm seed and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) wrapped in the leaves of a betel vine. Tobacco is sometimes added to combine the effects of nicotine, as are spices like clove, saffron, mustard, or cardamom, which are mixed in for flavor. Depending on the ingredients and regions, this packet is known as a quid, tamul, kavala, tambulam, bajjai, or paan.

In Thailand, there is archeological evidence of areca, betel, and lime dating back to between 7,500 and 9,000 years ago, suggesting that it is one of the earliest known psychoactive substances. Chewing betel nut is a social activity, akin to having a cup of coffee, and a setting in which to have discussions about business or family. For example, in Vietnam, it begins the process of negotiating marriage.

Betel nut chewers take the quid and place it in their mouth between the cheek and gum. The lime promotes salivation, and as they chew the nut they spit out the extra liquid.

2. Coca leaves

Produced: Bolivia, Peru, Colombia
Consumed: Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela
Active ingredients: Alkaloid coca, methylecgonine cinnamate, benzoylecgonine, truxilline, hydroxytropacocaine, tropacocaine, ecgonine, cuscohygrine, dihydrocuscohygrine, nicotine and hygrine
Effect: Stimulant, appetite suppressant, anesthetic
Health effects: No negative effects. Non-addictive.
Legality: Though the coca leaf contains the raw material needed to manufacture cocaine, the active alkaloid coca is found in such trace amounts that it cannot be compared with the recreational drug; still, the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs listed coca on Schedule 1 along with cocaine and heroine. Though Peruvian and Bolivian leaders have sought to establish new legal markets, many countries including the United States and Canada have objected. In general, coca leaves are legal in countries where traditional use is established, such as Bolivia, Peru, and Chile.

Coca leaves come from the coca plant, and are chewed when fresh. The leaves can be chewed alone, or in the traditional way with a small amount of ilucta, made from the ashes of the quinoa plant, to mellow the flavor and activate the alkaloids.

The coca plant was domesticated in pre-Columbian times, and plays an important role in traditional Andean cultures. It’s been used to combat altitude sickness and fatigue, and as a painkiller, and also plays a part in the religious cosmology of the area. Across the central Andean region, especially among indigenous communities, chewing coca is a commonplace and integral part of the culture.

Coca users keep the coca leaves in a pouch, and use a stick to transfer the corrosive ilucta from a gourd onto the leaves without touching their skin. Instead of quinoa ashes, the chewer might use quicklime, and sometimes aniseed is added for flavor.

3. Tchat

Produced: Ethiopia, Yemen, Egypt, Somalia
Consumed: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia
Active ingredients:
Cathine, cathinone
Stimulant, appetite suppressant, euphoria
Health effects: The World Health Organization (WHO) classified tchat as a “drug of abuse” in 1980, though the psychological dependence it produces is acknowledged to be less than for tobacco or alcohol. As with other stimulants, the long-term effects can include depression, lowered inhibition, and psychosis. As well, tchat chewers may be at greater risk for oral cancer.
Legality: Depends on the region. Tchat is illegal in many countries in North America and Europe, including Canada, France, and Finland, but it’s legal in the United Kingdom. It’s generally legal across the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula.

Tchat — also called khat, chat, jaad, qat, miraa, and Arabian tea — is a flowering plant (Latin: Catha edulus) found on the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. When chewed, the leaves and stem release cathine and cathinone, which affect the reuptake of epinephrine and norepinephrine (causing wakefulness), and affect the serotonin receptors (producing euphoria). The resulting effect is amphetamine-like.

The practice of chewing tchat dates back thousands of years and is a social activity similar to having a cup of coffee. Tchat chewers — an estimated 10 million people globally chew tchat daily — tend to become excited and talkative, which may account for some of the reason why it has also become part of the ritual of doing business in East Africa.

Tchat users chew the raw leaves and stem from the plant.

4. Tobacco

Produced: The Americas
Active ingredient: Nicotine
Effect: Stimulant, appetite suppressant
Health effects: Chewing tobacco is addictive and increases the risk of throat and mouth cancer, and of leukoplakia, which is a precursor to oral cancer.
Legality: Legal, but with some age restrictions, especially in Canada and the United States

Chewing tobacco is the cured leaf of the tobacco plant, which, when chewed, releases nicotine — a mild stimulant. Chewing tobacco is sold as loose leaf, or in pellets or plugs.

First Nations people in the Americas have been using tobacco as a pain reliever and cure-all for thousands of years, and frequently prepared the leaves by mixing them with the mineral lime.

Chewers take a pinch (if loose leaves) or a pellet or plug, and place it between the cheek and gum. When they chew, the nicotine is released and the salivary glands are stimulated, so tobacco-chewers must spit out the unwanted juices.

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