Updated: Sep 3
Everything you have always wanted to know about kava covered in one spot!
In writing this piece it is our aim as an Indigenous Fijian to inform and answer FAQs around Kava. We will continue to add to this post and expand as we see necessary.
What is Kava
Kava is a herbal drink (read that as can be taken as a drink, supplement or extract) which is extracted from the roots and aerial roots (stump of the root) of the kava plant. It is scientifically known as piper methysticum.
Throughout the Pacific, kava is also known in native languages as: -
· ‘awa’ (Hawai’i),
· ‘ava’ (Samoa),
· ‘yaqona’ (Fiji),
· ‘lewena’ (specifically aerial roots in Fiji),
· ‘waka’ (specifically roots in Fiji),
· ‘sakau’ (Pohnpei),
· ‘seka’ (Kosrae),
· ‘malok / malogu’ (Vanuatu) and
· ‘wati’ (New Guinea).
· ‘faikava’, literally translated to “to do kava” in Tongan and the word kava in Tongan means ‘bitter’.
Fijians also refer to kava as ‘grog’ and I have to admit was surprised when I learned that ‘grog’ refers to alcohol in western societies. So, if you’re ever in Fiji and someone mentions ‘grog’ just know what you are in for.
How long has Kava been around?
Kava is the traditional drink of Pacific Islanders consumed over thousands of years. As a culture whose traditions and practices have been passed orally over thousands of generations through stories and dance, the lack of written documentation on this makes it difficult to establish just how long kava has been around.
It is interesting to note though that from Hawaii to Fiji and all Pacific Island countries in between, Kava is planted and continues to be consumed in our communities and forms an important part of traditional protocols.
What are the different Kava Varieties?
Kava varieties are broadly categorised into Noble and Tudei (pronounced 'two day'). It is important to note that both varieties have different chemical profiles which in turn impacts their potency and taste.
There are many varieties which then fall under these two major categories. In Vanuatu alone there are more than 80 different types with about 20 of these being of the noble strain and the rest tudei. 13 in Fiji all Noble varieties, 10 in Samoa, 7 in Tonga, 2 in Pohnpei and 13 in Hawaii.
Kava varieties can be separated according to their appearance and kavalactones including:
• general appearance (normal, erect, prostrate)
• stem colour (pale green, dark green, green with purple shading, purple, black)
• internode shape (short and thick, long and thick, long and thin)
• leaf colour (pale green, dark green, purple)
• leaf hairs (hairs on both surfaces, hairs on lower surface only, no hairs)
• total amount and types of kavalactone
Vanuatu exports only noble kava unless an importer specifically orders Tudei. From the 20 noble varieties, 12 only make the top priorities from the kava producing islands in Vanuatu.
The 12 top Noble Vanuatu Varieties include:-
3. Kelai (or Miaome)
4. Ge wiswisket
7. Melmel or Sesea
The 13 varieties found in Fiji (all noble) are: -
3. Qila Balavu
5. Qila Leka
6. Vula Kasa Leka
7. Vula Kasa Balavu
8. Dokobana Vula
9. Matakaro Leka
10. Matakaro Balavu
11. Dokobana Loa
12. Loa Kasa Leka
13. Loa Kasa Balavu
Generally, all noble varieties do not differ much in kavalactones but the 'strength' of the kava when you consume it depends on both the preparation method and the cultivator (type, country, soil, etc).
Is Kava a Drug?
The drug found in kava is called 'Kavalactones'. It is mildly sedative.
The ADF (Alcohol and Drug Foundation), Australia; classifies kava as ‘depressant drug’ because it slows messages transmitted between brain and body. In the United States, kava has never been a controlled substance under the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Controlled Substances Act or New York State regulations.
Now kava is neatly packaged in pouches as 'traditional grind', bottled as pills and even pre-mix bottled drinks and widely used for stress, sleeping problems and to relax muscles.
For us, our fathers and forefathers have grown and consumed kava and continues to be a valued part of our traditional ceremonies.
What does kava taste like?
Kava has an ‘acquired taste’ but we all know that’s what people say when something does not taste pleasant. But after 25 plus years of consuming kava, I can now tell when it needs a bit more water, which country it is from and if of Fijian origin, which island it was sourced from.
First time I tasted wine I thought it had an ‘acquired taste’. I no longer think that after consuming copious amounts over the years but am still a long way off from knowing which grape and region a bottle is sourced.