It’s a muggy night on Emae, a tiny Pacific island in the nation of Vanuatu. Mama Netti has finished preparing dinner – a hot bowl of simboro, or grated yams wrapped in spinach and drowned in boiling coconut milk – and, now, before we eat, she is preparing our island-style aperitif: kava.
She breaks off chunks of the pale-yellow root and stuffs it in her cheek, chewing quickly to make sure the plant’s juices drain away from the fibers.
Kava root has the texture of ginger, but tastes like peppered mud, and chewing through the whole root is quite a feat. As the liquid escapes, the kava begins to numb Mama Netti’s lips – it’s a sign of the root’s potency as a powerful, psychoactive relaxant, but also makes it progressively harder for Mama Netti to keep the kava from dribbling out the side of her mouth.
Luckily, after about 20 minutes the kava is adequately pureed, and Mama Netti can spit the chewed-up plant into a cloth, mix it with water and then strain the liquid into the cups below. She hands one to me and we both go outside to a small clearing near the bushes. Mama Netti drinks the kava in one quick swig, spitting out the residue into the bushes as is the custom. I struggle to drain the cup all at once – the kava has an unpleasant smell of dried clay and freshly cut grass, and I am slightly put off by drinking another woman’s chewed-up concoction, but after a few sips and Mama Netti’s earnest encouragements, my cup is empty. We both head back inside to finish our meal and wait for the kava’s heady properties to take hold.
From Small Island to Big City
In our society of quick fixes and exotic elixirs, kava – or “kava-kava” as it’s sometimes called – has recently found a market in the United States as a powerful all-natural stress reliever. The plant’s active ingredient, kavalactones, has a drowsy, sedative effect on the drinker, and produces a slight feeling of euphoria. Powdered kava root is readily available online and in many health food stores, and can be stirred with hot water to create a relaxing nighttime beverage.
According to Kava Guru, more than 60 kava bars now exist in trendy haunts across the country, mostly concentrated in the coastal cities of California and Florida. Here, the root isn’t chewed and strained as in Vanuatu – rather your bartender can serve you a pre-diluted mixture of the powdered kava in a small bowl, with a slice a pineapple to chase away the bitter aftertaste.
Thousands of years before kava became a hip new-age remedy in the United States, the plant was chewed and consumed in homes like Mama Netti’s across Vanuatu. Though many Pacific islands grow the plant – from Fiji and Hawaii to Samoa and Tonga – historians consider the Melanesian archipelago of Vanuatu as the birthplace of kava, since it boasts the most potent and highest number of species of the plant.
Kava’s Cultural Roots
Kava is lauded across Vanuatu’s 83 islands not only for its powerful stress-relieving properties, but also for its status as a sacred cultural symbol. The ritual of drinking kava is thought to connect people with the realm of ancestral gods, and reinforces religious and social structures within communities.
Traditionally, kava is shared between families and guests as a sign of hospitality and a way to welcome strangers. During weddings, births and festivals, men gather at village centers – or nakamals – to prepare and consume the drink, often sitting silently together in the dark as they slip into a kava-induced stupor. At celebrations, like the annual Yam Festival, bundles of kava root are wrapped and presented to the village chief along with pigs and freshly harvested yams. Kava root is even used as a sort of settlement fee to ease tensions between sparring families or to negotiate peace between hostile communities.
More recently in Vanuatu and other Pacific islands, kava is grown as a cash crop and manufactured for export. For many subsistence farmers in Vanuatu, the international interest in kava has allowed them to develop a thriving business distinct from the traditional uses of the plant.
Kava Across Borders
The first European account of kava occurred in the 18th century during Captain James Cook’s second voyage through the Pacific. In his 1777 book, A Voyage Round the World, botanist Georg Forster, who was part of Cook’s crew, called the plant a “pepper-root” on account of its taste, noting that the islanders would “intoxicate themselves” by making a drink from the plant. This led Forster to name it Piper Methysticum, or “intoxicating pepper.”
Since then, countries outside of the Pacific have been slow to welcome kava as either a cultural import or a therapeutic supplement. Australia, a close neighbor of Vanuatu, has restricted the import of kava for a number of years, and banned its private sale within the country. In Europe, the sale of kava is also restricted, and completely banned in Poland, because of apparent possible liver damage and lack of agricultural standards in the exporting countries. Canada similarly restricts the sale and import of kava.
By some estimates, these restrictions prevent countries like Vanuatu and Fiji from accessing a lucrative international kava market, costing the local industry upwards of $20 million. The region is also prone to natural disasters, like Cyclone Pam that struck Vanuatu in 2015 and destroyed acres of kava crops. Such calamities make steady, reliable trade of kava impossible.
Back in Emae, Mama Netti and her neighbors are still growing, chewing and drinking kava. They are surprised to hear of the plant’s popularity on the other side of the world. Time will tell if kava stays on U.S. shelves or if it is simply a passing fad. But, for Mama Netti and others in Vanuatu, kava will forever be an essential part of their culture.