For centuries, Polynesian islanders have been drinking kava, the traditional beverage of South Pacific royalty. We wanted to try it, too!
Fijians are often referred to as the friendliest people on earth. This could be an understatement. High on our list of traditionally “Fijian experiences” was to partake of kava, so heavily entwined with this country’s national identity. We have been impressed by the strong sense of community and culture here in Fiji, as well as respect and acceptance for the individual. When the opportunity arose to drink kava in the traditional way right here in the neighborhood, we gladly accepted.
Kava became known to western civilization after it was shared with Captain Cook during his Pacific voyages in the 18th century. Today, kava is consumed in traditional ceremonies in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, and throughout the Pacific region in more casual settings. The traditional kava ceremony (the sevu-sevu) is intended to culturally unify visitors with villagers, and create a social bond among groups. Kava drinking rituals respect community status, strengthen relationships in an honorable way, and are sometimes used in attempts to communicate with spirits. Kava can also be consumed in capsule, extract and drop form.
What is kava?
Kava is made from the root of a bush that is related to the pepper plant. These roots are ground into a powder, which is then placed into a cloth bag and strained with water. Kava, also referred to as “waka” in Fiji, is widely available in Fijian fresh markets. It can also be obtained from home-based entrepreneurs who grow and grind it for sale. There are several hand-lettered signs in our Korotogo neighborhood offering waka for sale at individual residences along our bus route into Sigatoka.
Is there any medicinal benefit to kava?
According to WebMD, kava is “possibly effective” for treating anxiety There is insufficient evidence for other claims that kava is medicinal, although it has been used for: withdrawal from anxiety medications, cancer prevention, insomnia, stress, restlessness, ADHD, epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, headaches and common cold. WebMD also reports, rather begrudgingly it seemed to me, that “early research cites some benefit” to sufferers of menopause-related anxiety and hot flashes associated with menopause.
Is there a downside to kava consumption?
WebMD’s article immediately cites “BIG safety concerns” with using kava: liver damage and even death. Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and other European countries have total bans in place. Kava’s importation into Australia is restricted to medical or scientific purposes. According to WebMD, serious side effects have occurred even with short-term use. If you use Xanax or sedatives such as Ambien or Ativan, drinking kava may cause too much sleepiness or drowsiness. Kava may decrease the liver’s ability to break down certain medications as well, the most common of which are Valium, Elavil, Prevacid, Dilantin, progesterone, ibuprofen, Celebrex, acetaminophen, erythromycin, and statins.
As we do not use any of the pharmaceuticals on the extensive list, we weren’t too concerned about harmful side effects. Perhaps we are just inured to the overbearing protective language required in U.S. drug advertisements. Our personal issues with pharmaceutical companies are another post entirely.
According to an Australian resource which seems to be addiction-focused and alcohol abuse-centric, other negative symptoms that have been reported by those consuming kava are: appetite loss, tiredness (duh!), raised body temperature, nausea and vomiting, dark urine, abdominal pains, jaundice.
What kava is not
Kava is not a psychedelic drug. It won’t put you in a trance or cause hallucinations. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I had an expectation that our kava experience might have some sort of Carlos Castaneda-like quality. It didn’t. 🙂
Kava is not mud, although many westerners believe it tastes like it. To us, it tasted “earthy” and more like cold chai tea. Not unpleasant at all, but not necessarily a thirst quencher, either.
Kava is not a manufactured pharmaceutical. It is entirely plant based and not laced with other substances for consumption.
While kava is likened to alcohol for its soporific and relaxing effects, there is no evidence of physical dependency or risk of withdrawal symptoms.
How kava works
Kava contains more than a dozen kavalactones, most of which are compounds that inhibit the effects of enzymes. These interact with the central nervous system in a variety of ways. Kava mainly produces a relaxed feeling, with a bit of numbness on the tongue and in the mouth. It’s really more of a muscle relaxant than it is a sedative. Kava is said to induce a mildly euphoric sensation, similar to that of THC in marijuana although not as intense as THC can be. We found this assessment accurate. 🙂
How is kava made?
Wikihow explains 3 ways to make the kava drink here: http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Kava The most common way is to use a cloth bag to hold the powder and then strain water through the bag into a larger container from which individual cups are ladled.
The ceremonial ritual
Planet D enumerates the etiquette and steps to the village kava ritual for visitors:
- When entering a village always bring a gift of kava root. It can be picked up at a local market.
- Women should always wear a sulu (sarong) and dress modestly.
- Men should dress respectful as well.
- The eldest man enters the house first followed by the rest of the men and then the women
- Everyone must sit down and remain seated during the ceremony.
- You are allowed to take photographs, but it is always respectful to ask.
- The chief (the eldest man in your group) presents the root to the Village Chief.
- The ceremony then begins as the villagers grind up the Kava and strain it through a cloth bag into a large wooden bowl placed in the middle of the room.
- It is then offered to your chief and second
- Then the village’s executive head drinks the Kava before it is offered to the rest of the room.
- After that it is shared with everyone.
- The men drink first and then the women.
- Clap once with a cupped hand making a hollow sound
- Yell: Bula!
- Drink in one gulp
- Clap three times
- Say: Mathe
When you are offered a choice between “high tide” and “low tide” this refers to the quantity of kava in your cup.
Our hosts graciously allowed me to film our kava experience the other night. Bula!
Tips: Our hosts explained that the communal kava bowl (the “tanua”) has meaning as part of the ceremonial tradition, as well. The bowl is pointed toward the chief. If you don’t know who the chief is at the beginning of your visit, all you need to do is look at the tanua bowl. So, to reiterate: When you visit a new village, your gift is kava. The chief drinks first while others clap. It’s important to drink “down the hatch” – no sipping. Clap once as your drinking bowl is presented to you, say bula! and drink. When you finish return your drinking bowl and clap three times. Easy! Additional information: http://www.tourismfiji.com/fiji-culture-religion.html