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.

47 thoughts on “The Truth About Kava in Fiji”

    1. Gabriel Coggins

      I’m opening a Nakamal in Greenville SC in the coming month. Stop by to see us at The Kava Konnection if you are ever in the south east. Bula!

  1. I’ve had the pleasure of drinking kava often due to the fact that my boyfriend is Fijian and came to America when he was eleven years old. It’s definitely an interesting concept to me since the practice of drinking it is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It is done by eldest to youngest… or by who is most important in family line due to respect… I’m always last since I am a female. Women don’t particularly drink it… but that doesn’t mean that they don’t. I wouldn’t say that two cup fulls will make your face numb… I’ve drank kava over thirty occasions… but, it also depends on who makes it and how strong the particular kava root is. It’s always been interesting to me that its not drank together like say when you take shots and drinking kava takes hours and hours to complete. Also, never drink it while you eat (unless eating snack foods to get the taste out of your mouth) always eat after drinking because it will make you sick. Drinking alcohol with kava will also make you sick as well. The taste is definitely not great, it most definitely tastes like muddy water… but, I feel like if you can drink alcohol… Drinking kava isn’t bad. Over time, it has gotten more and more easier to drink. You can also buy it all over the place… Plant shops or from relatives is where we usually get it. If you’re trying it for the first time… My recommendation is to make it weaker so it’s not so bad. Also, we always keep it in the refrigerator or the freezer… I’ve never asked why though. It does however give you the best sleep of your life and you wake up super refreshed… Not groggy (grug is another term Fijians use for kava because it makes you super groggy when you’re drinking it) like other sleep aids.

    1. sorry reply got rearrainged some where….
      Thank you Kyrstin. I really enjoy Kava after a long stressed out day of work. My husband cannot stomach the taste, but the effect for me over rides the taste. I returned to the US with 6 pounds of kava (note, the kava sold to many tourist has more than just the root in it as ‘filler’, purchase from a Fijian that knows who sells the pure root). Before kava, i had a chronic pain in my shoulder that doctor said would never go away without surgery and another doctor said it would take deep message therapy for a long period of time to feel better, the pain is gone after two weeks of kava therapy! Is this a coincidence or has the muscle relaxation worked out the pain causing lump in my shoulder?

  2. Hi Steph,

    I’m about to have a kava ceremony on our porch here in Savusavu in a few hours – or just a little meet and drink – so your post is super helpful.

    Thanks so much 🙂

    Ryan

  3. Great info here. I have a layover in Fiji (12 hours) and read somewhere there are places near Nadi airport where you can participate in a kava ceremony, but not can’t seem to find it. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  4. BULA, I vIsited the pacific coast this past January and while I was in Fiji I had the pleasure of participating in several ceremonies that required me to drink Kava. The first time I only let it touch my lips. My lips was num for a few minutes. On the second occasion I sipped a little bit more than the first, and it really looks and taste like dirty water. This caused my whole mouth to be num for about 30 mins. Then on the third and final occasion I drank the whole bowl. Results – my mouth was num and my body felt very relaxed for about an hour or two. The bad thing about Kava is the taste. I don’t think I would want to drink it as much as the Fijian do. I do respect their culture and drank it out of respect. Had a BLAST!!!!! BULA

  5. I’ve been drinking kava for a few years, and I absolutely love it. The taste doesn’t bother me all that much, and the effect is positively awesome.

  6. I have drunk kava until i can barely stand up to much of it can get you very relaxed but the truth is you will only crawl into bed and fall fast asleep infact i plan to take some kava extract on my long flight to Austrailia just so that i can basicly fall fast asleep for most of the flight, my best friend is from fiji and his cousin drunk kava every weekend and i joined in often and afterwards we would eat the best curry in the world, two thumbs up to KAVA KAVA

  7. Ick, that does not sound tasty. But glad to know more about kava–I’ve seen supplements for it at some health food stores, but it’s probably not as potent or face-numbing. Very cool that you got to participate in some of the rituals for it. I wish we had something like that here in the States.

    1. Gabriel Coggins

      I’m actually opening a Nakamal (kava bar) in Greenville SC in the coming month. We’ll be serving kombucha, organic herbal teas, fair trade coffee and of course traditionally prepared kava along with kava infused drinks. If you have time give The Kava Konnection a look and stop in if you are ever in the south east.

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