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Stories from the South Pacific

To kava or not to kava

VANUATU | Thursday, 8 March 2012 | Views [477]

After arriving in Vanuatu it won't take long before you see, hear and taste kava. Taxi drivers will often ask you around three questions 'Where are you from?', 'Are you married?' and then of course 'Do you drink kava?'. For as long as Europeans have been harvesting grapes and drinking wine, so to have the pacific islanders been grinding up the root of this plant and enjoying the narcotic effects of Kava.

Kava is consumed throughout the pacific island cultures in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. In the Melanesian island nation of Vanuatu, kava was traditionally a ceremonial drink, only chiefs and respected men were allowed to drink the intoxicating liquid. Often if chiefs were arguing or there was some dispute to settle, kava would be served and its relaxing effects would help facilitate reconciliation. Since the country became independent, in 1980, drinking kava grew in popularity from ceremonial drink to today where it is the beverage of choice  to end a working day with. Every day on almost every corner around 4.30pm onwards there is a kava bar or nakamal, which is a chief's meeting place, serving kava to locals, expats and tourists alike. The sedative drink is a great way to unwind and socialise.

Being a person who likes to try new things and believes in the philosophy of 'when in Rome...' I was eager to try kava from the moment I landed in Vanuatu. I had no idea what to expect so I recommend you go with someone who knows what they're doing, because there are some kava etiquette rules that should be observed.

Kava is not to be mistaken for beer or wine in the method of which it is consumed. Do not, I repeat do not sip kava, think of it as a large Tequila shot. Get in down as fast as you can it is not a flavour you would like savour.   Also, the vessel in which kava is presented is a little unusual, it is served in shells.  Whether that be a half coconut shell or a small bowl it is always referred to as a shell. They come in different sizes according to the cost. The most common sizes are the 50vt, 100vt, 150vt and 200vt shell. You don't often drink kava alone, when you go to the bar to buy a shell it is polite to ask around 'Whose up for a shell?'. And the best part about drinking kava is, shouting a round to your new found friends will only set you back a few dollars.

When the green murky liquid is poured into your shell be sure to grab a glass of water, juice or soft drink as a chaser. There is often an area designated to drinking kava, where you stand with your back to everyone and guzzle down the liquid as fast as you can, quickly followed by some spitting and gargling of your chosen chaser.

The taste of kava is a much discussed topic and can be a good conversation starter. It is somewhere between cucumber juice, pepper, clove oil , a wheatgrass shot and a pinch of dirt. It kind of reminds me of that taste you get in your mouth when you fall face first in a field of grass and dirt, its earthy and it makes you feel tough for trying it. Once the concoction enters your mouth your tongue will usually go a little numb and your face will involuntarily appear like a cat's bottom. Hence the need to stand with your back to everyone while you drink it. After the initial 'why on earth would anyone drink this awful bin-juice like substance'  you'll  feel a wave of euphoria wash over you as your muscles relax and your mind slows to a meditative state.


Kava can affect everyone differently so after a shell, sit quietly and talk amongst your new friends and it may be another hour or so before you have your next shell. The story sharing aspect of drinking kava is as important as the drinking. In Vanuatu, people are very generous and will offer you food, water, shelter and they only thing they ask in return; is a good story. In Bislama, the native language of Vanuatu, the sharing or stories is called 'storian' and it is an integral part of the culture. So sit back, relax and enjoy the good old fashioned story telling that takes place over kava.

There are also different degrees of strength in kava which is usually attributed to where the plant has been grown and how it has been prepared. The kava on the islands of Malekula is known to be some of the strongest of the  Vanuatu islands. It is mostly stone-ground kava. The roots are ground up with stone, the juice is strained for pulp, a little water is added and then it is served. The first time I tried kava on Malekula, I was mesmerised by the stone grinding process. The young man grinding up the root was working up quite a sweat and once he was happy with his work, he added some water to the mix, took off his shirt and used it to  strain out the pulp. Despite what you would think, the mix of sweaty shirt and freshly ground kava was brilliant, the best I've had. On Santo the kava is mostly machine kava which is prepared by cutting up the roots into small cubes and mixing it through a hand wound meat grinder, don't worry the grinder is primarily for kava not meat. Sometimes you can taste the metal in this style of kava but again you don't drink kava for the taste. In Tanna, kava was traditionally prepared by young boys chewing the root in their mouths and spitting it into a bowl.  Lucky for me, woman are not allowed to drink this regurgitated-penguin-style kava on Tanna, but I hear it is very good. In Vila they mostly serve dried kava mixed with water as there isn't many kava crops on the island of Efate. The strength of dried kava is purely dependant on the kava bar serving you, it can be very strong or quite weak and this will differ from day to day.

Be mindful that kava bars are not a loud venues with dancing, flashing lights and people yelling at each other to be heard over  blasting pop music. Kava bars are dimly lit, if lit at all, places where people sit and speak in soft tones. While you won't hear gregarious laughter or rambunctious squeals you will be overcome by the cacophony of spitting, grunting and general nasal noises. 

 In Vanuatu, unlike other pacific islands that love kava, after people consume kava quite a bit of spitting ensues. People will spit directly onto the ground so always be mindful of where you step and it is best not to put your bag down. In fact, if you drop something on the ground, leave it. There is no 3 second rule here, chances are whatever you have dropped is now glued to the ground with someone's mucous infused spit never to be seen of touched again.

While there are not many conclusive medical studies on kava most of the information you'll find is anecdotal. It is said to cause weight loss as it can cause a lack of appetite. It is also said that overuse and abuse  can cause scaly skin and liver damage but this could also be contributed to the poor diets and malnutrition often found in the South Pacific.  It is has been safely consumed in the Pacific for around 3,000 years and will continue to be.  Give it a try and feel the effects for yourself.



Tags: bars, custom, drinking, kava, narcotics, sedative, socializing, tasting, tradition, vanuatu

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