Preparing Kava Kava Root

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In Vanuatu, the preparation of kava is a daily ritual. Every day kava is made fresh for the nakamals; it is never kept for a second day. Except on special occasions, kava preparation and drinking take place at dusk. The strength of kava is determined by three factors. The variety of species being used is of primary significance.

While there are many cultivars of kava throughout the islands, some, such as the Palisi and Palarasul of Santo Island, are more highly prized than others. Upon chemical analysis, these varieties prove to contain higher quantities of kavalactones, preferred ratios of certain kavalactones one to another, or both. Thus every island has its favorite varieties. Some are for everyday drinking, and some particularly strong varieties are for special occasions.

The age of the root also makes a difference in the strength of kava. Roots are not mature or ready for drinking until around five or more years of age. As time goes by, the concentration of kavalactones in the root increases, and the root increases in size and weight. Virtually every individual kava grower or village has a few very special plants ten or fifteen years old, saved for just the right occasion, perhaps a wedding, a circumcision, or another important event.

The third factor in the strength of kava is preparation. Preparation of kava root into kava for drinking is a process that is time and labor intensive. It is also an aspect of kava culture that has been hotly attacked by missionaries and other non-native zealots. For while today's method of preparing kava typically involves pounding, grinding, or grating kava by manual or mechanical means, the traditional method involved masticating the root.

There is ample evidence that mastication of kava was the method by which kava was prepared on virtually every island where kava was drunk in antiquity. In Fiji pounding kava with a stone was the traditional method of preparation until it was replaced by mastication in the 1750s. Today, mastication of kava is limited to the southern islands of Vanuatu, especially the island of Tanna, and to parts of Papua New Guinea. Kava mastication is a difficult, fatiguing, and time-consuming activity.

While customs vary from island to island, virgin boys or virgin girls were historically selected to masticate kava. This was due to the belief that sexual "purity" was essential for the preparation of good kava. The requisites for kava-chewing service included not only virginity, but also a clean mouth, good health, and strong teeth and jaws. Kava is a tough root no matter how it is prepared.

Traditionally, prior to mastication kava root was harvested, cleaned thoroughly, and cut into pieces. The lucky candidate (sometimes a passing virgin pressed into service!) rinsed his or her hands and mouth, and then commenced chewing the root. The fibrous root was chewed thoroughly until it became a soft pulp. Care was taken by the chewer to ensure that only enough saliva was mixed with the kava to make it soft, not sloppy with spit. Once the task of chewing a mouthful of kava was complete, the pulpy mass was spat onto a palm frond for further preparation.

When Captain Cook and his crew first witnessed the preparation of kava by mastication, they were thoroughly disgusted. The sharing of chewed kava seemed barbaric and unhygienic. Missionaries in the 1800s used the allegedly unhygienic nature of kava mastication as a rationale to press for a total ban on kava, the devil's drink.

Despite pressure on native people to abandon mastication, many Fijians and Ni- Vanuatu continued to chew kava as opposed to using other means of preparation, because they believed that mastication produced a stronger drink. In fact, it appears that mastication does indeed produce a stronger kava. Researchers believe that the reason for this difference is that mastication liberates more kavalactones, because saliva contains an enzyme which breaks down the starchy components of the pulp.

By all accounts, masticating kava is tiresome enough that young virgins would do almost anything to get out of kava-chewing service. Margaret Mead claims that many a Samoan chief's daughter eloped in order to finally be rid of the jaw-wracking duty. Today, there is either a dearth of virgins or customs have relaxed. In those island communities where mastication of kava is still the preferred method of preparation, non-virgin men usually do the chewing.

The other methods of initial kava preparation include pounding, grinding, and grating. On some islands in Vanuatu, freshly cleaned kava root is placed in a standing vessel resembling a butter churn. Sometimes the vessel is a length of wide pipe fixed to a stump or other large piece of wood. A heavy pounding pole is then used to smash the kava into a soft pulp. In nakamals where quantities of kava are consumed, meat grinders and even power mulchers may be used to transform fresh kava root into pulp. Some Fijian communities pound kava root with a stone, and still other South Pacific communities use rough coral to grate kava.

Once kava root has been reduced to pulp, it is ready to be further prepared. The kava is either placed in a large, wide bowl or onto a broad, slightly concave board, and is mixed with pure, cold water. Kava is not cooked, distilled, or otherwise tinkered with. The amount of water used helps determine the strength of the final kava drink. In nakamals in Port Vila, Vanuatu, quantities of five kilograms or so of freshly pounded root are put into a large plastic tub such as the kind used for washing dishes, and then the tub is filled almost to the top with water. Two tubs will provide sufficient volume of fresh kava for dozens of people for several hours over the course of an evening.

Once kava root is mixed with water it is kneaded or stirred for a while until the water has a muddy, opaque, somewhat yellow appearance. When the kava has been thoroughly mixed, it is strained. In a modern nakamal, straining is often accomplished through the fine fibers of a sturdy nylon bag. But in traditional nakamals, the strainer used is usually a wide swath of palm fiber. In either case, the solids of the kava root are strained out and pressed, and what remains is a ready-to-drink kava beverage.

Coconut palms grow abundantly on the islands of the South Pacific. As a result, there is an abundant supply of coconut shells for serving kava. While some nakamals in urban areas now use glass bowls or other modern vessels for kava, traditional nakamals strain kava into half coconut shells for drinking. Kava is drunk by the shell, and in those areas where kava is consumed regularly you will hear people measure their kava consumption in that way, saying they had three shells or five shells the previous evening, or that they are only going to have two shells tonight because they must get home early.

In the modern nakamal, kava drinkers typically do not participate in kava preparation, nor do they necessarily even observe it. But in traditional village nakamals, kava preparation is a time-consuming process that is an important social period. As kava is being prepared by a few individuals, others start to drift in, to share company and conversation and to discuss the events of the day. In villages, men take turns preparing kava, so the burden is not left up to anyone or two individuals. Enthusiastic, energetic young men often assume the task of making the majority of kava as a contribution to the group, simply because they have the stamina to do so.

As is the case with the preparation of a meal, the atmosphere of kava preparation sets the mood for kava drinking. Kava is not made while one does laundry, cooks a meal, or runs in and out for errands. "Kava time" is its own part of the day, set aside from all the rest of the day's activities. Kava preparation is the beginning of kava time, and determines the quality of the drink that will be shared, enjoyed, and appreciated.

Excerpted from "Kava: Medicine Hunting in Paradise" by Chris Kilham.