In popular literature, the areca nut palm is identified as Areca catechu, but some time ago I was corrected by Mr. Emil Sotalbo using catechu. He said that the right term was Areca cathecu (the H comes after the T and not the C) as it was first described in the 60's. But because catechu is already the more known name (probably because it is more memorable to the ear to say catechu), most references would now consider both as synonym names for the areca nut palm. But in taxonomy, the first name to be published is the official name. In purpose of this blog, I 'll refer to the areca nut tree as bungang nganga.
On our trip the Areca palm was growing on a steep slope. But it is near human habitation so I would assume that the palm grove was cultivated. In fact this is a familiar a familiar site in old provinces, not only in the Ilocos region. I have seen the familiar palm in Quezon and Laguna, In most cases growing as a backyard tree in households. This is the first time I saw the palm growing solely and in abundance in a rather large lot . The palm, with its striking green - red color contrast, (palm is green with the fruit nuts red) was quite attractive planted in group clusters. I have seen nganga palms planted in some old gardens and they were used as a solitary palm. It was less explored as a cluster or group palm.
When we got back to San Nicolas (after a long day journey taking us from there to Bangui, to Pagudpud, back to Laoag and them Paoay) there was still some sun left, so I made my detour to the market (a destination I usually do not forget when I am out of town, my companions were already tried so I went alone). I was looking for pasalubong, the likes of tupig, kalamay, longganisa and bagnet that you usually see in Vigan, but surprisingly, Laoag and San Nicolas in Ilocos Norte had very little to offer as pasalubong fare . It made my companions regret going to Vigan first in that trip. I advise travellers to go to Ilocos Norte first and sightsee, then go last to Vigan for pasalubong shopping. Trust me it is not easy to find pasalubong in Laoag. But the sights were enough attractions for us.
Making a last sweep of the San Nicolas market for probable pasalubong I spotted 2 old women selling strange articles in a neatly arranged cart. What attracted me to them was the familiar areca nut (nganga nut is actually a fruit not a nut but again it was popularly called nut like the coconut - which is also technically not a nut), but were laid out on the surface in different preparations, either as a whole, cut into quarters or sun dried. What a strange item for pasalubong, but that did not stop me to buy some to bring home, even just to verify if they could germinate in Manila.
The basic betel nut or nganga concoction is composed of 3 basic ingredients, the areca nut, the lime and the betel leaf. But in Ilocos, the nganga is made up of 4 ingredients, the fourth being tobacco. The manangs sell their betel nut kits comprised of areca nut quarters, crushed lime, Piper betel leaves and a couple of tobacco cigar sticks. I read somewhere that betel nut chewing could be compared to the sensation of drinking coffee. Probably adding the jolt of tobacco with 'coffee' makes the nganga a more potent elixir for enjoyment. Perhaps we should learn more about this vanishing pass time of our Asian and Pacific ancestors. We could maybe make it contemporary, much like how they update the art of Persian shisha in modern bars and restos. Hehehe, just looking at possibilities. But kidding aside, much of these old practices should be properly documented if they could not be passed down to succeeding generations.