by Mala Coomar
What is Kava?
When introducing one of my friends to the world of kava, it eventually came to light that the picture of kava they had in their head was that of a soft fruit. Upon this revelation, I realized that understanding kava is not entirely intuitive.
“Kava” can refer to both the plant Piper methysticum (Figure 1) and the beverage produced by the plant’s root. The kava plant is a robust, well-branching shrub from the black pepper family Piperaceae. Its generic name—Piper methysticum—comes the Latin for “pepper” and Greek for “intoxicant” thus translating to mean “intoxicating pepper.”
The plant reaches maturity about 3-5 years after planting when the root is 5-8 centimeters thick at about 60 centimeters above the ground and the plant itself is about 2-2.5 meters tall. Because the plant does not produce any fruits or seeds, it is cultivated through vegetative propagation where a cutting of a grown plant is taken and used to produce more plants.
Figure 1: Kava plant during the first few months of growth.
Kava in the Pacific Islands
Kava is indigenous to the tropical Pacific Island region including Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia with the exception of the New Zealand, New Caledonia, and most of the Solomon Islands. The Pacific Islands are one of the few culture areas where alcoholic beverages were virtually unknown at the time of contact with Europeans—instead, they produced and consumed kava. Arguably, the low crime rates in these areas could be attributed to kava use in lieu of alcohol use.
Figure 2: Pacific Island Culture Areas
When it comes to making the kava beverage, the root alone of the plant is used—the leaves and stems are deemed unsuitable and unsafe for consumption. The root of the plant is peeled, cleaned, and chopped into small pieces. Then it is mashed into a soft pulp, mixed with room temperature water, and strained through a fine mesh into a Tanoa or kava bowl and served with a coconut shell.
Throughout the Pacific Islands, drinking kava remains a strong social tradition where it can be a form of welcome, used in a political context, and used to commemorate births, deaths, and marriages. One root mass from a kava plant can produce about 10-15 coconut shells of the beverage perfect for sharing as well as fostering and strengthening friendship. One may even say that “to decline kava when it is offered is to decline friendship.”
Figure 3: Kava beverage served with a Tanoa (kava bowl) and coconut shell.
Kava Outside the Pacific Islands
Kava beverages produced from a fresh root are significantly stronger than when prepared from a dried root/powder. When consumed outside of the Pacific Islands, dried and powdered kava root is used to prepare the drink by mixing and straining it with water and/or nut milk. This is because of the inconvenience and often prohibition of the export of fresh kava roots and plants. Nut milk or other sorts of “kava mocktails” can help improve the taste of kava which is originally quite earthy and bitter—reiterating the notion that kava is likely drank for ceremonial purposes and/or the relaxing effects it produces on the body rather than its taste.
Although kava beverages are sometimes referred to as a “tea” or “kava tea” outside of the Pacific Islands, it is important to emphasize that the leaves of the plant are not used when the drink is properly prepared nor are they edible or deemed safe to consume. Rather than the soft fruit my friend thought it was, kava is a robust plant whose roots are used to produce the kava beverage that can carry social importance and meaning of varying degrees both inside and outside the Pacific Islands.