Like elsewhere in South Asia, chewing doma pani (བདོག་མ་པ་ནི་) is popular throughout Bhutan. Also referred to simply as doma (བདོག་མ་), the collation consists of a quarter or more of the areca nut (Areca catechu; doma), betel leaves (pani or paan) as it is known in South Asia, and a dab of slaked lime (tsuni, derived from chuna in Hindi). Scholars trace the origin of doma substances to the Indonesian archipelago. It is said to have reached the Indian sub-continent in the first half of the first millennium and gained widespread use as a snack encompassing a range of social meanings including hospitality, love, honour, commitment, and auspiciousness. It is difficult to say exactly when the practice of eating doma reached Bhutan but there are clear accounts of betel leaves and areca nuts being imported into Bhutan from India in the later part of the 18th century.
Some traditional scholars believe that betel and areca were included as auspicious substances in the zhugdrel ceremony by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), the religious figure who unified Bhutan. Others even go further to claim that the habit of eating doma, pani, and tsuni was introduced in the eighth century by Guru Rinpoche in order to replace the cannibalistic habits of the pre-Buddhist Bhutanese. The betel leaf is said to substitute the skin, the areca nut the heart, and the lime the brain of a human, and the resultant red juice, human blood. What is clear is that both stories aim to justify the strong Bhutanese penchant of eating doma and encourages the consumption of doma as an important aspect of social culture. Doma is offered as the last item among of the range of food and fruits offered during zhugdrel ceremonies to cultivate auspiciousness and represent auspiciousness and prosperity after almost every tea or meal during religious rituals. It is also offered during greetings and receptions as mark of hospitality, as gifts to express gratitude, as tokens of love, and above all as refreshment, because of its addictive power that imparts a heightened stimulant effect upon the consumer. Thus, doma is ubiquitous in Bhutanese festivals and ceremonies.
Bhutanese consume two kinds of betel leaves. The rata or shingpan is the smaller leaf from a creeper which commonly grows in the subtropical forests of Bhutan. The trodompan is a larger leaf cultivated in some areas of southern Bhutan but mostly imported from India or Bangladesh. The areca nut grows in southern parts of Bhutan and in the adjacent plains of India. Bhutanese eat both the fresh nut and the nut seasoned by burying in the ground but the latter is generally preferred. When they don’t have areca nuts, people sometimes use rushing or the dried bark of a creeper, peach trees, chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) or other plants, or the gunra root as they give the same effect of producing red juice when chewed with betel leaves and lime. The slaked lime is either imported or made locally in Bhutan, using rock lime extracted in Bumthang and Kengkar areas, though it’s believed that the best lime is found in Chendebji, Trongsa. Sometimes, a pinch of yellow tumeric is added to the white lime to give it pink colour.
Traditional Bhutanese made special containers for doma consumers. For those of sufficient means, silver containers with beautiful carvings called chakar are used to contain betel leaves and areca nuts. The slaked lime paste is contained in a smaller container called timi. Bhutanese housewives often carry a small penknife which is used to remove the skin of the areca nut and split it into pieces. When people lose teeth and can no longer chew large pieces of the nut, a metal tool called a drecha and a sharp knife are used to break them into small pieces. There are also decorated bamboo or wooden containers used to hold and serve doma, especially when it is being served to a large number of people.
In the past, doma was an expensive and rare commodity. Thus, important people often gave gifts of doma made into single sets called khamto. Today, with economic development and enhanced trade with India, doma is both easily available and affordable. Thus, many people eat doma more frequently and gifts of doma are also given in large quantities. Despite social and health awareness campaigns to minimize its use due to the negative consequences it has on personal health and social environment, the culture of eating doma thrives in modern Bhutan. It is common to see people take out a small plastic packet of doma when greeting a person on the road or to please an official behind the desk. Many Bhutanese, both young and old, are addicted to doma. They relish it, despite the resulting red lips and heavily stained teeth.