by Mala Coomar
I LOVE food. Food and drinks are most probably the core of my existence not only because of the sustenance they provide but because they are an easily accessible way to have a pleasant moment each day. Eating or drinking something delicious or even preparing something delicious for someone else to eat or drink is most definitely a small but certain happiness in my life.
Besides being delicious, food and drinks can be an insight into another part of the world and a way to experience a culture different than my own. They can also be a ceremonial or social experience—a happening that is more than simply consuming something. Drinks, in particular, can have varied meanings associated that range in their informality and formality. On the informal side, drinking coffee can be associated with a start to the day, a break during work, or meeting with a friend. Drinking alcohol can be associated with unwinding, socializing, or partying. On the more formal side, there were Mayan Cacao ceremonies carrying ritualistic, spiritual and political meanings and, to this day, there are Chinese tea ceremonies symbolizing apologies, gratitude, or a marriage.
Relatively recently, kava drinking has become increasingly commonplace in the U.S. especially in the St. Petersburg, Florida, area where the highest concentration of kava bars can currently be found. Beyond its social and arguably “trendy” nature, kava also has a formal side stemming from its cultural roots in the Pacific Islands where kava ceremonies equate a historical legacy as well as peacemaking.
Along with the rise of kava in the U.S. have come several other drinks from around the world ranging from bubble tea and matcha to kombucha and kratom. Because their relatively recent surge in popularity in the U.S. as well as their alliterate nature, I initially associated kombucha, kratom, and kava together. Furthermore, they are all arguably consumed for their effects or supposed benefits rather than their taste per se. However, kombucha, kratom, and kava are three very distinct beverages with distinct histories and distinct effects.
Kombucha—or kombucha tea—is a fermented, slightly alcoholic tea that originated in northeast China. It was prized for its detoxifying and energizing benefits with its use expanding as trade routes expanded. Researchers believe that the fermentation process involved in kombucha tea implies that “the beverage contains similar benefits to plain tea and fermented foods, including probiotic benefits that encourage gut bacteria diversity and aid digestion.” As such, interest in it grew and its popularity increased. Kombucha tea is easily accessible as it is bottled and sold commercially and even available on draft at certain cafes.
Kratom and kava, on the other hand, are slightly more controversial and slightly less accessible.
Kratom is a tropical tree with “opioid-like properties” native to Southeast Asia including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea. In those regions, it has historically been used as a traditional medicine by chewing its bitter leaves to alleviate and treat certain ailments. Kratom has been found to have “addiction potential” where “individuals build tolerance with heavy use” (ibid) and is restricted or banned in many countries excluding the U.S. Kratom has gained prominence in the U.S. as a “natural alternative” to treat chronic pain and as a remedy for opioid withdrawal. Kratom has also increasingly been used recreationally and its use generally increased rapidly between 2011 and 2017. Kratom is available for purchase on the internet and can be found in certain cafes in the U.S where it is prepared and served as a tea.
Finally kava—not to be confused with “cava”, the Spanish sparkling wine—is a plant from the Pacific Islands. Kava, or kava kava, is the Tongan and Marquesan name while other names for kava include ‘awa (Hawaii), ‘ava (Samoa), yaqona (Fiji), sakau (Pohnpei), and malok/malogu (Vanuatu). The root of the kava plant is used to produce a drink that is not only consumed for its relaxing effects but also holds historical, ceremonial, and cultural value.
The significance of kava to the cultures of the Pacific Islands can be reflected in the various legends that surround the origin on the plant. One Tongan legend tells the story of a couple sacrificing their only daughter as an offering for a sacred king. The two plants that grew over the grave eventually became known as the first ever Kava and sugarcane plants—both of which hold important places in Tongan ceremonies. The couple’s act of sacrifice and, by extension, kava symbolized the Tongan virtues of Fakaapaapa, Lototo, Mamahi’i me’a, and Tauhi vaha’a. These stand for respect, humility, commitment, and peacemaking. One Vanuatuan legend tells the story of a young girl who was struck with an arrow and killed by a suitor whom she had refused. Eventually, a single plant—eventually known as kava—grew over the grave. One day, the brother saw a rat gnaw on the roots of the plant and die. The girl’s brother, who was overcome with grief over her death and often visited her grave to mourn, saw this and decided to gnaw on the roots of the plant himself in order to kill himself. However instead of dying, he forgot all of his unhappiness and told everyone he knew about the miraculous effects of the plant.
Evidenced by the various legends surrounding it, kava holds an important place in the culture and ceremonies of the Pacific Islands. Kava has since been used for medicinal, religious, political, cultural, and social purposes both informally and formally by all social classes and by both men and women. In cultures that may have not had a written language, it was an important part of passing along traditions and oral histories as well as facilitating peacemaking.
Both of the legends from Tonga and Vanuatu reflect the importance kava can hold as well as how meaningful a kava ceremony and drinking kava can be. Today, “kava culture” remains an important part of much of the Pacific Islands. In Fiji, the drink is drunk casually throughout the day and is also seen as a form of welcome. This plays into socio-political events where, for instance, Prince Harry was welcomed with a kava ceremony upon his recent visit to Fiji. In Futuna, kava is used to induct a new chief. In Hawaii, it is used for medicinal, religious, political, cultural, and social purposes. In Samoa, it is drunk at important gatherings through a highly ritualized ceremony. In Tonga, kava is also used to induct a new leader and holds importance both formal and informal settings.
Throughout the Pacific Islands, kava can thus serve to carry on traditions and bridge the past with the present. In addition to its ceremonial use, kava is enjoyed socially because of its relaxing effects upon consumption. This effect has likely largely contributed to its popularity and growing general interest in kava in the U.S. It has also contributed to it being restricted or banned in several countries. Despite its psychoactive effects, kava is not classified as a drug in the U.S. and studies found that consumption “never leads to addiction or dependency.”
Importantly, kava is traditionally drunk not only for its taste or its effects but for what it symbolizes and the history it carries. There can be a formality to kava drinking when it comes to its associated rituals and ceremonies as well as informality when it comes to passing on oral histories and socializing. Kava is unquestionably something more than just a drink to consume.
Kava’s relatively recent surge in popularity means that there is a knowledge gap in the U.S. on nearly every aspect of kava despite its 1000+ year history and use. It is just a history and use that is unfamiliar to the general population in the U.S. and warrants demystifying and further understanding. In the Pacific Islands where kava drinking is prolific and kava knowledge is widespread, kava drinking—in a certain light—can be understood as a small but certain happiness. And with the advent of kava drinking in the U.S., it is increasingly becoming a small but certain happiness for those who enjoy drinking it.