Kava is a drink from the South Pacific made from the roots of the Kava (also sometimes called “Kava-Kava”) plant, Piper methysticum, meaning “Intoxicating pepper.”
If you plan on drinking a couple of “shells” of Vanuatu kava while on holiday (it’s traditionally served in half coconut shells.
Because the traditional origins of Vanuatu kava go back more than 3,000 years! It’s an integral part of Vanuatu “kastom” rituals and drinking the right kava in the right place at the right time can result in an almost spiritual experience
HOW IS VANUATU KAVA PREPARED?
Traditionally, Vanuatu kava is prepared by cutting or pounding the root until it breaks into small pieces. The root is then chewed (preferably by children or beautiful young women because of their “purity”) and the juices spat into a bowl where it is mixed with a little coconut water or coconut milk. The chewing is meant to release the active ingredients of the root. The resulting brew is finally strained and squeezed through coconut fibre, diluted with clean water and served in half coconut shells to drink. These days, the kava root is often ground, pounded or grated rather than chewed and spat out, and the kava juice strained /decanted.
WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?
There’s no getting around the fact that to the western palette, Vanuatu kava tastes a little like grass clippings mixed with dirt. It’s slightly bitter with a hint of pepper and has a strong “earthy” aftertaste that tends to leave your lips and tongue feeling tingly and numb. If you’re worried about the aftertaste, a good tip is to take a fruit chaser with you (a slice of fruit to suck on).
WHERE AND HOW DO YOU DRINK IT?
village setting, Vanuatu kava is consumed in the nakamal, or central meeting hut, usually at night and usually by men only. However, in the many kava bars which have sprung up around Vanuatu towns in the last few years, both men and women are allowed to drink kava (same goes for the tourist villages). You can find a kava bar by looking for a red/green light outside the roadside huts or by asking locals/ex-pats where to go at the end of a working day.
Traditionally, kava is downed in one hit – you are expected to drain the shell! On many islands, this is followed by some enthusiastic spitting (it’s not as gross as you think!). The spitting is a kind of symbolic “offering to the Gods” and is often accompanied by short prayers or whispered instructions to the ancestors (as a non-local you are not expected to do this!).
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU DRINK?
Vanuatu locals will often consume anywhere from 4-8 shells in a solid kava drinking session. We recommend you don’t drink more than 3-4 if you’re not used to the effects.
You will not offend your hosts if you politely decline to drink kava or if you have half a shell (especially if you explain the reasons why) but you’ll be accepted into their community more readily if you make the effort to be part of the kava drinking ceremony.
Having a beer chaser after kava is fine (but do not mix kava with strong alcohol), same goes for eating a snack in-between shells or afterwards, and if you do feel nauseous, a cup of warm milk or tea apparently acts as a good remedy!
Remember, whenever you’re drinking Vanuatu kava, make sure to have a break in between shells (10-15 mins) as there is often a delayed effect – one minute you are fine, the next you’re struggling to stand up or move!
Also keep in mind that you can sometimes experience the so-called “reverse tolerance” effect (see above for details) if you are having regular kava sessions.
Effects of kavalactones include mild sedation and a slight numbing of the gums and mouth. Kava has been reported to improve cognitive performance and promote a cheerful mood. Kava has similar effects to benzodiazepine medications,without its bad side effect, including muscle relaxant, anaesthetic, anticonvulsive and anxiolytic effects.