Betel nuts are commonly eaten in South East Asia, and in Taiwan there’s quite a sub-culture of this… If you travel around the country, you’ll see Betel Nut stores all over the island. The locals often refer to the nut as “Green Gold” because of the money it generates.
Our local town in Tamshui near Zhuwei MRT station has quite a few stores. The betel nut stores also serve cigarettes, cold drinks (including canned coffee!) and betel nuts to drivers, truckers, taxi drivers, and other groups of people (usually male) on the move.
Take a look at this excellent video. In Chinese, the term for the sales girls is “Betel Nut Princesses”! You’ll see how they dress!
I’ve never tried them, but I did have one South African friend who was determined to try them before he went home. So he bought a box of betel nuts and ate the entire box while he was packing to go home! Anyone know if these ‘nuts’ are legal in the USA or Europe?
But the consumption of betel nuts in Taiwan has led to several real problems: deforestation, and oral cancer. Once you become more familiar with the countryside, you’ll see how prevalent this ‘green gold’ industry has become, with many plantations island-wide, even in less than optimal locations on the sides of hills, etc.
Also, consumption of these nuts has dramatically increased incidents of oral cancer, especially when combined with smoking and/or alcohol consumption. While you’re here, you’ll see people with very bad dental problems caused by excessive consumption of the betel nut.
As a part of local culture, it’s a tradition that has been passed on from one generation to the next. As visitors, though, it is difficult to understand the habit, especially when you see the problems.