Thursday, April 12, 2012

K is for... Kava, The Drink of the Pacific

Kava Plant (Piper methysticum), Vanuatu

Tanoa, Traditional Fijian Kava Bowl, Honolulu

Nakamal, Kava Bar, Vanuatu











Grinding Kava for Sakau (Kava) Ceremony, Pohnpei

Kava in Hibiscus Bark, Sakau (Kava) Ceremony, Pohnpei

Filtering Kava Liquid into Coconut Shell, Sakau (Kava) Ceremony, Pohnpei

Kava.  Not Java, folks.  Java is coffee and, as we all know, tends to make one feel stimulated and alert.  Kava, on the other hand, has quite the opposite effect.  Related to the pepper plant, kava grows throughout the Pacific.  It's calming effect has made it the drink of choice during important and potentially tense meetings throughout the history of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia.  The taste can be described as somewhat earthy, and a good coconut shell full should numb the mouth and eventually relax the body and mind.

Many scientists believe that kava, or Piper methysticum, meaning intoxicating pepper, is endemic to Vanuatu.  Indeed, it can be argued that Vanuatu is home to the strongest kava in the world.  Over time, the plant has found its way to other places in the Pacific, such as Hawaii, Fiji , Pohnpei , Samoa, and Tonga, and the drinking of kava is embedded into these local traditions. 

Like many other kava drinking societies, kava ceremonies in Vanuatu did (and still does) involve mainly men.  In many villages throughout the country, it is forbidden for women to drink.  In fact, in a few villages on the island of Tanna, women run the risk of being severely beaten for loitering in the vicinity of a ceremony. 

Another example of this strong male/kava connection is the story of the death of the ancient chief, Roi Mata.  His funeral took place on an island known as Hat Island or Artok Island, and because he was such a powerful chief, more than a handful of his very dedicated male followers chose to be buried with him, alive. Whether or not the women chose to go this way is to be debated, but it is known that the men were given very strong kava.  Photographs of the excavated burial grounds suggest that the men went rather peacefully.  The women on the other hand, were obviously frightened and endured much pain because the photograph shows them hanging on to their husbands for dear life.  Unfortunately, they were not allowed to partake in this ominous kava ceremony.

Nowadays, a handful of women (and many expats) who live in more urban areas of Vanuatu drink kava at the local kava bars, or nakamals.  It is a way to relax after a long day of work, or discuss important, controversial matters with coworkers.  Nakamals are most often found in conspicuous, dark places, where there is usually some kind of music or fire and the atmosphere is peaceful.  To me, spending an evening in the nakamal with close friends is a perfect way to end the day.

What is the perfect ending to your day?


  1. I love to read at the end of the day. Often it's the only time the house is quiet enough for me to concentrate. Even better is reading in bed. :)

  2. I feel like I can't fall asleep without reading. I'm still trying to get through the Harry Potter Series. My students got me reading them and the Hunger Games.

  3. The perfect ending to my day is definately not met with a bowl of dirt water that makes my mouth water just talking about it. I usually end my day with a glass of wine in my garden. Love you and you're doing such a great job with your blog.

  4. Bonjour Trish,
    I would like to use the last two photos of that page, for a publication of educational and academic purposes on kava. Could you please contact me for details?