Awa Root

For centuries, European culture, and the western world in general, was bereft of the benefits and joys of 'awa root, the Hawaiian name for kava root. 'Awa root is considered one of the "canoe plants" that ancient Polynesians brought with them on their migration to the Hawaiian Islands. It is thought that Hawaii's relative isolation allowed for the cultivation of totally new strains of kava kava, so that today there are varieties of Hawaiian kava kava that aren't grown anywhere else in the Pacific. 'Awa is pronounced "ah-vah" and means "bitter, referring to the acquired taste of kava root.

As a beverage, 'awa is usually made from fresh or dried root and water. The traditional way of preparing 'awa root usually involved chewing the lateral roots to soften them, then soaking the softened root in water. Sometimes kava brews are also heated by placing hot stones in the bowl with the prepared brew, which is then stirred with a fibrous brush and drunk once it has cooled off. On occasion, native Hawaiians may simply chew the root as a quick method of consumption, rather than go through the ceremony of preparing a kava beverage.

In Margaret Titcomb’s 1948 book on the use of 'awa root in Hawaii published in 1948, she said 'awa was “a sacred drink of importance in many phases of Hawaiian life. Its effect is to relax mind and body and it was used by farmer and fisherman for this purpose. Medicinal Kahunas (learned men) had many uses for it. It was essential on occasions of hospitality and feasting, and as a drink of pleasure for the chiefs."

In Hawaii, there are many strains of Awa root. Some of the most popular strains are the "Mahakea," "Mo'i," "Hiwa" and "Nene" varieties. The Ali'i (kings) of old Hawaii coveted the special kava they called “Mo'i”, which may have been preferred due to a predominant amount of a particular active consitituent, the kavalactone kavain. This sacred variety was so important to them that no one but royalty could ever experience it, "lest they suffer an untimely death". The reverence for Hiwa in old Hawai‘i is evident in this portion of a chant recorded by N.B. Emerson and quoted by Handy and Handy. "This refers to the cup of sacramental 'awa root brewed from the strong, black awa root (awahiwa) which was drunk sacramentally by the kumu hula."

As you might imagine, 'awa root is sacred to the Hawaiians. It was, and to an extent still is, seen as connecting Hawaiians with their ancient gods and ancestors. Awa root was used in healing ceremonies as a means of obtaining esoteric knowledge. As Eastern fortune tellers would read tea leaves, so would Hawaiian priests make divinations from the patterns made by bubbles in drinks prepared from 'awa root. From these, they were able to glean knowledge of a person’s well-being, or even predict the sex of their unborn child. 'Awa root preparations were also used at ceremonies for naming children, and when young girls were initiated into hula and chanting.

By the late 1940s, the use of 'awa root in the Hawaiian islands had sharply declined, partly due to the use of alcohol, which was introduced by Europeans in the late 18th century. Thankfully, this wonderful, gentle root has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, as ethnic identity and a wish to revisit traditional ways has increased amongst Hawaiians.

Although there are many ways to enjoy kava these days -- as a tincture, in capsules, even as a kavalactone-rich paste -- those who desire the traditional kava experience can still find it in Hawaii. In a typical kava ceremony, a prayer is offered to the kava root before participants begin to drink, quaffing the brew in quick gulps. A portion of the brew is then poured onto the earth in a gesture of thanksgiving. Finally, a "pupu", or snack, is offered to counteract the bitter taste of 'awa root. Pupu snacks take the form of sweet or savory foods such as bananas, fish, or sweet potatoes, in a custom that quickly caught on with tourists. You can still order pupu platters in Hawaiian restuarants today!

'Awa root plays a prominent part not only in the history of Hawaii, but in the history of all of Oceania. In the Polynesian Islands, it appears that 'awa root and its ritual use spread along with the colonization of the islands.

For a beverage that is extremely pleasant, gentle, and relaxing to consume, 'awa root can't be beat*. Now, after being used for thousands of years by the people of the Hawaiian islands, there are numerous ways to ingest 'awa root. Besides the traditional Hawaiian way, there are instant drinks, pastes, concentrates, and others. Aloha no!

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to cure, treat, diagnose, or prevent any disease.