An Essential Guide to Drinking Kava

Travel the South Pacific for awhile, and you’ll inevitably wind up seated before the ubiquitous kava bowl. By that time you may even have heard the stories about how it tastes like dirty dishwater.

Kava has been around for thousands of years, and it serves myriad purposes across the Pacific cultures: it’s offered as a gift to the chief when visiting a native village in Vanuatu, a pre-church warmup in Tonga, or a nightly wind down in Fiji.

Before you dip a coconut shell into the muddy brown waters to quaff your first shell, there’s a few things you should know in advance.

What is kava?

Piper methysticum, if you’re scientifically inclined. For the rest of us, it’s a distant member of the pepper family. Roots of the kava plant contain some fun chemicals called kavalactones, which have mild sedative properties when ingested. They’ll numb you up, relax the mind, and take the edge off if ingested in sufficient quantity.

Kava by Kevin Ptak
Kava by Kevin Ptak

How is it prepared?

Kava roots are dried, ground and pounded into a fine powder. The powder gets mixed into an emulsion with cool water, run through a muslin cloth strainer, then served in a communal bowl. From here, each culture serves kava with unique flourish and ceremony dictating the rules and procedure. In most cultures, kava is traditionally for men only, a practice still enforced to varying degrees. However, with the arrival of tourism to the Pacific Islands, some cultural codes have been relaxed and it’s usually possible to find kava circles that welcome female participants by asking around with your hostel or other backpackers.

No matter who you are or where you’re gathered, the effects are universal.

What happens when I drink kava?

At first, nothing. It’ll be served in a half-shell of coconut, which you’re expected to consume in one long slurp. After you down a shell or two, the first telltale signs of will begin to appear. A numbness creeps over your mouth and lips as the kava is absorbed there first. Next come the fingertips. Rub them together after shells three and four and see how you’re getting on. Progressive shells bring lovely, languid relaxation, and a slowly unfurling mind as the kava works its magic.

It’s not drunkenness, and it’s not getting stoned. It’s just kava. When you’ve had enough, gracefully decline another round, explain that you’ve had enough, and that’s fine. Your receptivity to the kavalactones will improve with practice, and you’ll become used to the effects in time. Kava’s also a potent diuretic, so there will also reach a point where you’ll need to seek nearby relief.

Kava by Kevin Ptak
Kava by Kevin Ptak

In Tonga, the best and most potent kava is reputed to come from the volcanic island of Tofua in the northern Ha’apai group. You can find it at the tourist markets and stalls, but for premium product, ask around with the locals. As always when traveling, making inroads with a knowledgeable local will offer better results. It might take some persistence, but the caliber of the kava consumed by the locals is far better than the tourist-grade powder on sale in market stalls or souvenir shops. You can usually take kava home to most countries.

Finally, a bit about the taste: dirty dishwater is a popular descriptor, but having never slurped the dregs from the bottom of a sink, I can’t make a fair comparison. A more accurate flavor would be dusty, earthy, peppery and with a watery-medicinal aftertaste. To say it’s pleasant would be disingenuous, but to say it’s awful might put readers off from trying it, and that’s not constructive either. The joy of travel is experiencing those things outside our comfortable cradle of familiarity, and risk trying something you might not like for the potential reward of an insight into the culture you’re visiting.

While it’s not permissible to mix kava with juices or soda, carrying a few sweet candies to pop between rounds is an acceptable and recommended antidote to the taste. So harden up, hoist a shell, and toast the island life.

When his cubicle became confining, Kevin Ptak picked up and moved to the climes of Kiwi country, where he’s lived for the past two years. Between expeditions to the far corners of New Zealand, he works as a public relations consultant and dreams both of being a travel writer and his hometown of Buffalo.

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