A few friends from Hong Kong and I spent several enjoyable days on the island of Penang this month. We stayed at the beautiful 132-year-old Eastern & Oriental Hotel, took in the many restored and revitalised British colonial-era buildings (even as we grieved over the irretrievable loss of the same in Hong Kong), and enjoyed the delicious street food the northern Malaysian state is famous for.

The Malay name for the island, Pulau Pinang, means “island of the areca nut palm”, the seed of which is chewed as a stimulant by many in South and Southeast Asia. The Chinese and Malay names for the areca nut are similar: pinang in Malay, pin-nng in Hokkien Chinese and binglang in Putonghua.

The first mention of the plant by name in Chinese sources was in Records of Strange and Rare Objects, written during the Eastern Han dynasty (AD25-220) by a native of what is now Guangzhou. The text describes the peoples, customs, flora and fauna of southern China and the areas further south.

The areca nut palm tree was accurately described and chewing the nut with betel leaf and the lime ash of burnt oyster shells was supposed to aid digestion. The nut was popular across the country, especial­ly among the upper classes, but today it is consumed in a big way in Greater China only in Taiwan and Hunan.