Kava in Vanuatu

Kava is a soporific drink made from the root of a plant related to the pepper tree. It has been used for millennia by Melanesians throughout parts of the Pacific for a variety of reasons, but primarily as a relaxant. Vanuatu kava has something like 32 active components, making it the strongest kava in the world. So for those of you who have tried the Fiji kava and felt nothing – be warned it is nothing like what’s in store for you drinking Vanuatu kava!
Kava is not an alcoholic drink. It is an intoxicant, the only legal narcotic in world. It is not addictive, nor does it have damaging side effects. Quite the opposite, for recent research has spurred interest by pharmaceutical companies worldwide as to its curative properties.
Culturally, it was traditionally a Chief’s drink used in ceremonies. But as Vanuatu’s culture is so diverse, so are the ceremonies and use – and taboos – surrounding kava.
On Tanna Island the pulpy kava root is washed and cut then chewed by boys and young men into a pulp and spat into a coconut fiber ‘cloth’. The juice is then squeezed out and drunk. It is thought in some places that the saliva from these – often virginal – young men adds some active chemical component to the kava, enhancing its effects. Kava certainly does vary in strength, but mostly because of its age (the older, the stronger). Dilution with water also reduces its effects.
The prepared kava is drunk only by the men (defined as being those circumcised) in the early evening, following a hard day’s work. It is sculled in one go, the bitter, peppery aftertaste being ameliorated by sticking something sweet, like a piece of wild sugar cane, into their mouths. The muddy residue is then spat out.
Two to four shells is usually enough to relax even the most stressed out Tannese, however under no circumstances must women go anywhere near the kava nakamals while the ceremony is taking place, on pain of a beating, or in years gone by, death.
In other islands, both men and women partake of kava equally, using it to treat an assortment of pains and ills. Women in labour would sometimes drink it to relieve the pain, but this is actively discouraged now, as it can effect the alertness of the baby and its ability to breath, at birth.
Kava looks like muddy brown water. It tastes…well, terrible, hence the reason it is sculled the residue spat out and the sweet in the mouth. The best description of the taste is a combination of muddy, dirty, soapy, peppery dishwater and dettol. The dettol part comes in when the lips and tongue go numb…..
This numbness is a natural side effect, as is the relaxed feeling that comes over you after a couple of shells. Yet it also heightens sensitivity to sight and sounds, which is why kava nakamals are dimly lit and people talk in soft voices.
There is certainly no point drinking kava just to ‘try it’. It tastes foul and one sip, even one shell will have no effect. You need to drink it on an empty stomach, two or three shells over the course of a few minutes, to have any effect.
If you would like to try kava as it is supposed to be drunk, there are various nakamals around Port Vila that serve it.
If you are reluctant to try this, then most of the bigger hotesl offer kava ceremonies on theme nights. In most places (and defintely in the hotels!), the kava has been prepared by a blender, rather than the traditional jaw breaking method! Check with your hotel staff as to the nearest nakamal to you – but don’t forget – empty stomach and something sweet as a chaser.
And don’t worry, the worst that will happen is you will de-stress and perhaps feel sleepy enough to miss dinner (it’s also hailed as a weight loss method!).
If you would like to take some kava home with you, it is legal to carry powdered kava into all Australian states. People can take 2 kg of dried kava (18 years and older) into Australia without permits, but it must be declared to Australian quarantine on arrival. For those from other countries, you should be okay, as powdered kava is now exported to Europe and North America, but check with your local Quarantine people if you are at all unsure.


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