Many are the benefits of betel leaf, but before diving into this plant’s culinary uses, it’s worth mentioning the difference between what is known as betel leaf used in Asian cooking and the completely different plant, which is the leaf chewed with betel nut.
The latter betel leaf otherwise known as Tambula in Sanskrit, Paan in Hindi and vetrilai in Tamil is a leaf found abundantly throughout South and Southeast Asia. In these parts of the world, it is common for people to chew the leaf, sometimes for hours.
In fact, in 2009 Dubai banned the import of betel leaves to prevent people from chewing and then disposing betel quid everywhere. Betel quid is a folded packet that generally contains betel leaf, areca nut, slacked lime and tobacco – optional, although contents can vary depending on the practices of various cultures.
How betel leaf is used in various parts of the world
Hindu people use betel leaf either in ceremonies, wedding ceremonies or as offering to the elders for extending their blessings.
The leaf is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat ulcer and heal wounds and Chinese folk medicine uses betel leaves for detoxification purposes.
Some studies correlate betel leaves with oral hygiene and the leaf was found to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, although the opposite is as well brought forward by researchers. Some studies seem to suggest that betel leaves may cause mouth cancer and esophageal cancer.
No side effects, however, exist when consuming the edible betel leaf that is the evergreen and perennial plant with white flower spikes. This is the betel leaf used in South East Asian cooking that we’re going to be talking about below.
Using betel leaf in the kitchen
In Asian cuisine, betel leaf is used for a variety of fresh and cooked foods. Some foods are wrapped in the leaves and then eaten as snack or starters, and the leaves are also added to salads, soups and curries.
When used to make snacks, betel leaves are filled with peanuts, raw ginger, and shrimps. Sometimes the leaves are soaked in cold water with sugar to alter the flavor and thus provide a more distinct taste.
A most flavorful food is bo la lot, seasoned beef grilled over charcoal. The beef is wrapped in betel leaves that protect the marinated meat from the searing heat while at the same time, releases its oils and spicy flavor into the meat, making for an aromatic dish that people adore.
Aside from bringing flavor to foods, betel leaves bring health benefits such as improved digestion, optimal PH levels, increased hunger, oral health, relief in cases of chest congestion and other respiratory problems, easing bronchitis, and aiding in skin issues.
Betel leaves are known to lower the cholesterol and protect the gastric system, having strong antioxidant properties. If you want to use betel leaves as a food ingredient or for medicinal purposes, you can find them in Asian grocery stores either fresh or dried. If you have any concerns about consuming betel leaf, consult a doctor or nutritionist before adding it to your diet.