There is a significant and meaningful kava culture that continues today. From where it comes from, to its history to the bowl its drunk out of, there is story and reason for it all.
Starting back thousands of years, kava was first discovered in traditions of the Pacific Islands. Countries like Vanuatu, Fiji, Hawaii, Micronesia, French Polynesia, Tonga and Samoa all have their own varieties of kava plants, and their own kava culture. While much of these over lap, there are still some unique qualities to each. Some traditions are still very rich and a part of everyday life, like in Vanuatu and Fiji, where others the tradition had faded due to outside influences like French Polynesia.
No matter where the kava you drink comes from, there is rich kava culture behind it that is important to know. Here are the four biggest aspects.
How its prepared
Kava is prepared through a long process of harvesting the root, drying it and grinding it into a powder. The best kavas are still grown by small farmers in the South Pacific. These farmers continually test the kava to ensure it’s the best quality, and only use those plants to create grow new kava. The increased demand had forced some of the tradition process to change to keep up with demand, but in general, thinks are done very similarly then they were centuries ago.
The powederized kava is what you drink. Not directly, of course, but as a drink. The traditional way to make kava is by placing the powder in a porous bag, and putting in hot water to steep for 5 minutes. Then the bag is massaged or “pounded” to get all the kavalcatones out (the active ingredients). After another 3 or so minutes of this, the kava is ready to be drunk.
The kava bowl is one of the most traditional aspects of drinking kava. For centuries, Pacific Islanders have used specific bowls for serving and drinking kava. These are often made out of wood or clay The name of them varies by island. It’s called a “Kumete” in Tonga, a “Kanoa” in Hawaii and a “Tanoa” in Fiji and Samoa.
The kava culture of the bowl is special. They are typically handmade, making each bowl unique and unlike anyothers. They are shallow and have three legs to provide support and stability during celebrations and serving. The bowl is either passed around and drunk from directly, or using coconut cups called “bilos”. This is what is commonly used today when you go into a kava bar.
How it’s drunk
Historically, drinking kava involves a special tradition and order. This may involve a certain chant or prayer, or having the leaders of a community drink first. The order of how its drunk is very important as it symbolizes the hierarchy and honors the heads of villages. Drinking kava first is considered to be a sign of great respect.
In North America, we don’t follow such strict traditions. However, due to the rich kava culture, some kava bars will still have some sense of basic ceremony. And of course, you can create your own traditions for yourself when you drink kava.
What it means
Being such a melding pot of different cultures, it can be hard to see what our traditions as a country really are. But for countries that are thousands of years old, tradition is so important. It’s how they ensure their culture and stories continue.
This is why kava culture is so important to us. We have the privilege to drink this wonderful elixir that comes from so far away right in our own homes, but with that comes the importance of honoring it roots.
So when you drink kava, think about where it comes from, and maybe even create a tradition for yourself. It makes the experience that much sweeter.