Kava, otherwise known as Piper methysticum, is part of the Piperaceae (pepper) family and is a bush like plant. The roots are considered an herbal supplement known to be used in drinks and teaa that are shared in relaxing social environments. Drinking Kava promotes peoples drive to be social and in turn more relaxed and friendly in the environment.
It has been traded across the Pacific for more than 3,000 years. The wild precursor, Piper wichmanii, ranged from New Guinea to Northern Vanuatu and is speculated to be the origin of the domesticated kava plant we see today. Significant variations can be noted for four island communities: Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, and Pohnpei representing the Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia respectively. Today, it is often used in a social setting and Kava has been used as an alternative to alcohol.
The plant requires fairly high average temperatures ranging from 20-35° Celsius (68-95° Fahrenheit), high humidity, and depp, well-drained soils; hillsides are particularly well suited.
Before the process of making Kava tea was discovered, the islanders would chew on the roots as a way to ingest the Kavalactones.
Harvesting & Processing Kava
The plant can be harvested after three to four years by cutting above the first node. Specialised local knowledge has been applied to develop kava plants that product a beverage that suits local tastes while also improving the yield. Commercial plantations have been developed since the 80’s.
After the plant is uprooted, and cut at the node it is then cleaned and dried for several days. Some farmers peel off the skin off the root to have only the purest form of the Kava root.
Fijians distinguish several forms of the root. Small lateral roots, termed waka, are the most common part of the plant used and sold in urban markets. Alternatively the dried rootstock, known as lewena, can be used, as can the basal portion of the plant’s stems, known as kasa. Each type of yaqona has a different price.
Lewena has a smoother taste but less potent kavalactone properties which is why most prefer the more bitter Waka.
The Waka and/or Lewena is then pounded into a crushed powder medium using hammer mills or manual pounding. The final product of these steps is what is commercially sold to eventually be made into tea.
Related Article : How do you make Kava tea?
The Different Origins of Kava
Fiji has become a central player in many aspects of the kava trade. Fijian kava, known as yaqona, features prominently at many social occasions today. The social occasions include both; secular and ritual, though in the past its uses were mainly ritual – in traditional ceremonies.
If you ever visit a farm/village, it is a common/polite practice to bring your own kava to offer to the village chief as a form of tribute & respect.
Just how long the plant has been used in Fiji is still the subject of debate. It is likely that cultivars, originating from northern Vanuatu, were transferred during the spread of Lapita peoples eastward some three thousand years ago, and later featured in exchanges between Tonga, Fiji, and Wallis during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Formerly, though women had a role in the preparation and formal presentation of kava, it was consumed mainly by Fijian men; however, that is changing. Research in western Fiji in the late 1990s found that “grog” users drank yaqona to relieve tension and anxiety, relieve insomnia, promote sociability, and improve urination.
Recent research by Tarisi Vunidilo indicates the importance of women’s contributions to kava practice in pre-colonial times, as well as their involvement in kava circles today. She reported that her mother on Kadavu, used kava selectively and in moderation for medicinal purposes, such as for stomach ailments or during pregnancy. Vunidilo’s paper highlights the need for further in depth research into not only the role of Pacific women in preparing the beverage, but also their own selective uses of it.
Drinking kava was abandoned by ni-Vanuatu communities for almost a hundred years, mainly due to Christian missionaries’ attempts to eliminate all “pagan” practices. However, since Vanuatu’s independence in 1980, kava has been revived as a symbol of ni-Vanuatu’s national identity. Not only was planting encouraged as export potential loomed, but the government of the day also promoted it as an alternative to alcohol.
The brew from some of the Vanuatu rootstock is reputed to yield the strongest physiological effects of any Pacific varieties. This is due to them diverging from the traditional practices in other parts of the Pacific. They have the unique process of using the fresh green roots and less water to produce a higher concentration of kavalactones per serving.
Kava has become a major cash crop for ni-Vanuatu. Over three thousand hectares have been developed, much of that land is newly extended plantations. The Vanuatu Tourism Office Website strongly promotes to visitors and tourists and drinking kava is emphasised as an integral part of the island experience.
Negative Effects of Kava
Heavy drinkers of kava have reported the negative effects of scaly skin, watery eyes, headache, and so on. Abstaining from kava is usually enough to have the symptoms go away, but it is highly recommended to consult with a physician if you encounter any symptoms and to stop the use right away if you are allergic to the plant.