They say you learn something new every day. And today I learn that gambier, AKA catechu, is a common ingredient used by Asians in chewing betel.
Which nice for me, nice for my mother, and absolutely blinding news for the staff of any museums in our path across Malaysia.
At the Penang Museum there are many things. Silks, jewels, mother of pearl furniture, trishaws, native houses, Korans, krises, Chinese funeral equipment (including tiffin tins) and those haunting, contextless photos of couples posing awkwardly on their wedding day for newfangled portraiture machines.
Also… A selection of betel sets.
The betel habit is dying out across most of Asia, but in its heyday, this mildly stimulating parcel of leaf, nut and, err, some other stuff was way ahead of qat, fags, opium or even weed. And among the best classes of society, one kept one’s chewing kit, all together, in some gorgeous lacquer confection.
Now in Penang betel, it appears, it was chewed with… gambier.
Yep. You may well ask. My mother did.
Imagine. You are 20, or thereabouts. In a first job, possibly even a holiday job. You speak at least two languages (depending on your ethnic background, quite possibly four or five).
And a retired headmistress corners you and asks you, “Excuse me. But this word, ‘gambier’. What does it actually mean?”
So you lie. You say, “Ah! It’s difficult to explain. But there is some in the next gallery.”
Of course, we’re in Borneo now. Which makes the museum attendant’s job all the harder.
To me, the word Sarawak signifies not one, but two of my all-time Great Victorian Brits and People Who Make Me Want To Go Places and Do Things.
There’s the “adventurer” James Brooke, like so many great Brits — Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh — a pirate by any other name.
And then there’s Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist. Wallace not only formulated a theory of evolution at roughly the same time as Charles Darwin. But did so in the course of a 14-month sojourn in Sarawak, part of an epic, twelve-year journey through the tropics which nearly killed him, several times.
Now, like the finest Victorian naturalists, Wallace’s methods feel a bit, well, odd today.
One of the triggers for his thinking was the orangutan, the gorgeous apes found only on Borneo and in Sumatra, whose Malay name means “man of the forest”.
How did Wallace find out about the orangutans?
He, err, went out and shot them.
LOADS of them.
Boiled them down. Measured their skeletons with calipers. Started an academic size queen bitchfight with someone who’d reported larger skeletons.
In fact, when the baby orang he’d lovingly hand-reared (after shooting his mother, natch) died, he boiled him down, too.
Anywise. When I heard that Alfred R. Wallace’s specimens formed the basis of the Sarawak Museum’s collection, I was really, really excited.
Y’know. This here creature. In this here case. Could be the very one that the great man shot after he broke his arm but before his assistant died of malaria.
OK. So maybe you don’t exactly know.
But I hope you can relate…
We are in the Sarawak Museum. A fine Victorian edifice set in classically British gardens, with springy, short-trimmed Malaysia grass standing in for lawns and hibiscus making a damn fine substitute for rose bushes.
The nine year old and grandpa are inspecting the Shell exhibition.
The “natural world gallery”.
The nine year old is happily vociferating about Shell’s take on deepwater drilling and the environment, not to mention its vision of an oil-free world, in the general direction of his grandfather.
“Hmmm… Coral grows on oil platform legs, huh?! Not when you’ve just FILLED THE SEA WITH OIL AND BURNED THE TURTLES ALIVE it doesn’t. Why BP doesn’t just get a big tube and suck it all up I’ll NEVER know…”
“Well, yes, a house would look like that if there was no oil. If ALL your furniture was PLASTIC and you only wore SYNTHETIC clothes and your teddies had METAL eyes but were otherwise ENTIRELY plastic…”
Meanwhile, in the corridor…
… An innocent museum attendant is going about his business…
… When my mother espies a betel chewing set…
And, almost simultaneously, I see not one, but TWO orangutan skeletons. (Like all the best small museums, the Sarawak Museum is pretty damn diverse.)
“Excuse me,” my mother says, again. “This word, ‘gambier’, what does it mean?”
And, to my utter bewilderment, the guy responds (I mean, maybe it’s in the training), with “Ah! There is some in the next gallery, just down there.”
And takes off, at a shuffle.
To be honest, I’m not really registering the shuffle. Or the bewilderment. Or giving, to be honest, any more of a toss than the attendant does about what gambier means.
Right now, I’m all about the skellies.
Sweet Jesus. Poor man.
“Excuse me!” I say, noticing that I need to raise my voice a little as the fount of all wisdom seems to be receding down the corridor rather faster than is normal, or indeed seemly. “Excuse me! But these orangutan skeletons here. Are they from Alfred Russel Wallace’s collection?”
The shuffle speeds to a run.
The man appears to have gone deaf.
Not an unfamiliar scenario for either me or my ma.
But. Y’know. A little saddening, all the same.
We look at each other forlornly. “I’m sure it’s something you chew with betel nut,” I say, helpfully.
Rather like I’d said the last time, in fact.
“Probably some kind of ash. I think they wrap the nuts up in leaves with an alkaline to release the juices.”
Then I promised to look it up on the internet. Again. And, tonight, I finally have.
And gambier is another word for “betel nut”. Because it’s the leaf that is the betel. And the nut that is, well, areca, catechu or, err, gambier. Go figure.