“Narammale” and “nararathi” are two types of betel leaves that grow in Dampalasse, Kurunegala. They are found largely in this area and the residents in Dampalasse are all reliant on farming the plant. While for the longest time these betel leaf farmers were reliant on the local market, they have since breached an international market that has allowed the community to strive.
The betel leaf, as we all know, has been part of Sri Lankan culture for centuries. It has its own distinct value in our customs and rituals with the leaf always associated with the New Year and as part of ceremonial greetings, mainly during religious rituals.
However, while it may not be so common in Sri Lanka to use the betel leaf in our cuisine, the betel leaf is a common and traditional food in some Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, and especially Pakistan.
Speaking to us about this relatively newly found international market, exporting betel leaf to Pakistan, Kumudu Lalani, a betel leaf farmer, shared that this expansion of their business has been life-changing.
Kumudu shared that growing up, both her parents grew betel leaf as a means of income, and for the most part, they simply got by. However, since 2002, which was when she first started to grow what is now referred to as “narammale” and “nararathi”, which are a special, high-end variant of the average betel leaf, she said that her life has transformed.
She shared that she was able to educate her children, one of whom is currently a pilot in Australia, and the other is a manager at a hotel in Sri Lanka, and she will soon join her husband in Australia as he recently was awarded permanent residence there. She said that her family was able to thrive because of their betel leaf plantation.
Kumudu’s betel leaf plantation is particularly notable as many of the botany students and researchers come there to study the plants. She said that the area where she lives is particularly suitable for the betel leaf to thrive, but added that the reason why the leaf thrives in her community is because they have a great love for the plant and that when you grow it with great dedication and respect, the plant rewards you.
“The betel leaf is associated with religion and spirituality. It is not an ordinary plant and because we take great effort to treat these plants with incredible care, we are able to reap its benefits,” she said. She also noted that they do not use harmful chemicals in their plantation, despite the betel leaf being notorious for contracting various diseases.
“The betel leaf is not a common and widespread plantation because it is so prone to catching disease, and if you are growing a large plantation, then if even one single section is affected, the betel leaf is merciless and they will all proceed to contract the disease,” she said.
Kumudu shared that in addition to the betel leaf that is used for preparing food, they also have a variety of purely ornamental varieties; “kaha nagawalli” and “sudu nagawalli” – which are decorative types of betel leaf that are often grown in pots, and it is said to be a sign of prosperity.
The betel leaves grown in Dampalasse are available at the Kurunegala local market and are sold by intermediaries primarily in the Gampaha District.