The Truth About Kava in Fiji

Before I left for Fiji I heard plenty about kava: that Fijians were obsessed with drinking it, that I would make you hallucinate, that it tasted terrible. Some of this was true, some of it was a flat-out lie. So I thought I would set the record straight about kava in Fiji.

Also known as Yaqona, kava plays a huge roll in Fiji’s culture and day to day life. It’s popular across the South Pacific but it is a particularly big deal in Fiji. Here is the down and dirty on Fiji’s “national drink:”

Kava is NOT a Psychedelic Drug

Sipping on Kava in Fiji

People tend to confuse kava with Ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic ceremonial drink from the Amazon. Kava, on the other hand, is not intended to give you visions or to put you into a trance. Its effects are mild: one or two cups will make your face numb, a large amount will make you feel relaxed and sleepy. Drink too much and you might fall asleep, but that is the limits of its power.

The majority of Fiji islanders drink kava on a daily basis with no ill effects. The popularity of kava in Fiji might help to account though, for the slow and relaxed pace of the islands and the popular concept of “Fiji time.”

Stacks of the plant Kava in Fiji wrapped in newpaper

Kava IS a plant

Kava comes from the root of the yaqona (piper methysticum) bush, a relative of the pepper plant. The root is ground up and then strained with water into a large wooden communal bowl (or sometimes a plastic bucket, depending on what you have on hand). Simple preparation for a simple drink.

Yaqona is one of Fiji’s biggest crops and exports. You are absolutely allowed to bring kava into the US, and can even buy it everywhere, even at the airport!

Drinking Kava in Fiji Can Be Ceremonial

Kava in Fiji is used as a symbol to bring two groups of people together. When visiting a new village it is essential to bring a gift of kava. The community then gathers and the kava is mixed. There are a lot of words, all in Fijian and some clapping. The chiefs partake first (the oldest male in your group can be your makeshift chief) and it is then offered all around in a communal bowl.

My inner anthropologist was buzzing when I was lucky to attend not one, but two kava ceremonies on our trip. When participating in the ceremony it is essential to dress conservatively and sit respectfully. If you are offered the kava in Fiji it is important to drink the entire cup in one go. Don’t sip it (it’s better to just down it anyway, once you taste it). Clap once before receiving the cup, drink up and then clap three more times.

Once the ceremony is complete then everyone in the room is now friends and you can get on with the eating and the dancing.

Kava Drinking Can Also Be Very Casual

Similar to how the Argentineans are constantly sipping mate, Kava is a near-daily beverage for many Fijians. After work, relaxing in the afternoon, pretty much whenever, small groups of friends and family will share kava from a communal bowl.

At our resort it was common to see the boys in the band sitting by the pool, strumming on their guitars and sharing a big bowl of kava.

Kava Does NOT Taste Good

The Making of Kava in Fiji

Well, I suppose it does to the Fijians, but I would call it a definite acquired taste. To me, and many of the westerners I spoke to, drinking a bowl of kava feels eerily similar to drinking a bowl of dirty water, In short: it tastes like mud. Bitter, peppery mud.

For me, the ceremony and community surrounding kava is far more powerful than the drink itself. Although it might give germaphobes some pause, I loved the communal and warm aspect of kava culture and the openness and acceptance that goes along with sharing the drink. Even in the quickly modernizing world of Fiji, where you’re more likely to see people hanging out in t-shirts and jeans than traditional garb, this drink holds a powerful and uniting place in society.

Planning a trip to Fiji? Try one of these places to stay:

The Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort offers guests an outdoor pool and swim-up bar, plenty of dining options and even spa services on site. This beautiful property overlooks the water and will help you to achieve ultimate relaxation.

The continuously voted best value hotel, The Fiji Gateway Hotel, offers guest free airport transfers, 2 restaurants, a poolside bar, 2 swimming pools, and even a giant waterslide! If you’re looking to visit Fiji on a budget, this is a great option!

If you’re looking for a luxurious experience, The Matamanoa Island Resort has it all. This 4-star hotel has its own private beach, tennis courts, massage services and everything else you could need to enjoy a relaxing stay in Fiji.

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Image of Fiji with text overlaying - The Truth about Kava in Fiji

Special thanks to Tourism Fiji for inviting us to Fiji and covering our stay. All opinions are my own.

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Amanda
Amanda

Thanks for the great lesson on kava! Not sure I’d want to try it now that I know it tastes like mud… haha. What happens if you really can’t stand it? Is it incredibly rude to refuse the bowl?

Mikaele Ilaisa Buaserau
Mikaele Ilaisa Buaserau

No its up to you if you dont wanna drink its up to you…but if you are in a welcoming ceremony all have to have a bowl each..you cant refuse..but the second bowl..its up to us ..they wont force you..

arthur kotoisuva
arthur kotoisuva

if you refuse a second bowl they will put you in a lovo (earth oven)…just kiddin

Waegook Tom
Waegook Tom

Great post and photos, Steph. The description of kava at the end isn’t what I wanted to read while I was eating my breakfast though haha! Interested about the face numbing properties. New botox, perhaps?

Ali
Ali

Very interesting. I didn’t know anything at all about Kava before reading this. It doesn’t exactly sound good, but I guess you kind of have to try it when you’re there.

Chrystal McKay
Chrystal McKay

I’d never heard of Kava – this was a great read. And incredibly lucky you got to partake in 2 ceremonies! How interesting! Do the Fijans use Kava for medicinal purposes or are there any uses for it other than uniting communities?

Kristijan
Kristijan

Kava brought me here since in Croatian language kava is word for coffee.

Dylan
Dylan

I’m not even going to begin describing how much I LOVE kava…

Kaylin
Kaylin

I agree with all of this! It is very interesting to take part in a Kava ceremony (I also had to do so when in Fiji) and I hated the taste of it too. I agree that it tastes like dirty water. But the ceremony itself, which often involves really awesome Fijian singing is great. I would do it again just to do the ceremony, despite having to drink the muddy water again.

Ivy
Ivy

Hah, thanks for the insight! I have a massive thing for cultural get-togethers with strange beverages. Concerning the taste of mud… As a child, I said pretty much the same thing about coffee, so… 😉

Kristen - A Gypsy's Love
Kristen - A Gypsy's Love

I suppose mud-flavored water would be better if it gave you hallucinations and feel-good vibes. 😉

Sarah
Sarah

Great pictures! Interesting information – I’d only heard of kava in a very vague way, so this is good to know. I’m definitely putting it away in my mental “Future trip to Fiji” file.

Richard Ulrich
Richard Ulrich

I recently did several visits to islands in Fiji and was welcomed with the Kava tradition. The taste was somewhat different. but after several cups you mouth was numbed and you did feel relaxed. The Ceremony was quite impressive with the drink of Kava and the dance. It was just too bad that several of these islands were destroyed by the recent Cyclone of Feb 2016. I visited in June 2016 and the islands were in bad condition and the people were in need of many supplies. If you decide to visit be sure to bring some type of school… Read more »

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