The wild betel leaf was given it’s name due to its similar appearance to the popular stimulant used all over South East Asia. Both are members of the Piperacae family which also includes black pepper. If you’ve traveled at all through SE Asia you may have come across people, typically those from the hill tribes, with red gums and teeth. This is due to chewing betel nut, which has been done for thousands of years in these parts of the world – (although not recommended).
The wild betel leaf is not a stimulant at all, but used in a lot of SE Asian cuisine. In Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam it is typically used as a wrap or in a salad, although in some places in Thailand you may also find it inside of a curry.
My favorite way to use the wild betel leaf is to wrap up Yum Takrai, or the fresh lemongrass salad, but you could totally be creative in its usage. It is a beautiful heart-shaped leaf, and is often used in food decorating as well.
Why eat this at all? The leaves are high in antioxidants, particularly naringenin, which is also the antioxidant found in grapefruits. Antioxidants work to reduce oxidative stress, brought on by too many free radicals (unstable, cell damaging molecules), which can lead to neurodegenerative disorders, cancers, atherosclerosis, and other heart and inflammatory conditions. Free radicals are part of the normal processes of your body, but can be intensified by toxic chemicals in foods, smoking, hydrogenated oils (trans fats), drugs, alcohol, and the list goes on and on.
Foods we typically associate with antioxidants are dark fruits and berries, such as grapes, blueberries, and raspberries. However, dark leafy greens, nuts, and dark chocolate also contain high levels of antioxidants. Wild betel leaf, being a dark leafy green, falls into a category many people don’t usually associate with antioxidants.
Next time your backpacking around SE Asia and you see one of these heart-shaped leaves on your plate, don’t be afraid to try it!