All About Kava, Fiji's National Drink

Kava Ceremony

Tim Graham/Getty Images

Your first night in Fiji, you'll likely find out that Fijians have a thing for a drink called kava. They consider it their national drink and drink it frequently and with great ceremony for its mild sedative (some say euphoric) effect.

As a visitor to Fiji, you will most likely be invited to try it yourself during a kava-drinking demonstration at your resort or during a visit to a local village. Here's what you need to know about this ancient ceremonial tradition.

What Is Kava?

Kava or kava kava, also known by its Fijian name yaqona, is an plant native to the Pacific Islands. The plant has used by Pacific Island cultures for its pleasant relaxation effects. In the past, it was solely used by Fijian chiefs but is now enjoyed by everyone. It is still customary and good etiquette, however, to bring a small gift (sevusevu) of yaqona to give to the chief if you are invited to visit a local Fijian village.

Kava is a domesticated plant from the pepper family (piper methysticum). For the drink, only the roots of the plant are used. The roots are first pounded into fine powder and then mixed with cold water and consumed as soon as possible. The result looks a bit like muddy rainwater and the slightly bitter taste is more offensive than it is pleasant. Though that's to be expected since kava means bitter in the Tongan and Marquesan languages. The roots can also be ground against a cone of coral, or they can be chewed. Chewing the roots provides the strongest effect and fresh kava roots create more potent drinks than dried roots.

In Fiji, sun-dried kava roots are pounded into a powder, mixed with water and served. This preparation of kava is called grog.

Bowl Of Kava
Tammy616 / Getty Images

How to Drink Kava

In Fiji, kava is drunk with great attention to detail in a formal setting known as a Kava Ceremony. Dress comfortably but modestly (no short dresses, exposed shoulders, or low necklines, and no hats). Participants sit cross-legged in a circle on the floor in front of the chief or head of the ceremony as he mixes the powdered kava root with water in a large wooden bowl called a tanoa (the root is strained through a cloth to keep out the gritty particles).

When the kava is ready, it is scooped into a bowl called a bilo (made from half a coconut shell) and passed to the first guest to drink. Turning down a bowl of kava is considered an insult to Fijians, so brace for the bitterness and do try a bit. Kava made at your resort or during an organized tour to a local village with bottled or purified water is safe to drink.

When it is your turn to drink, you should clap once, accept the bowl and drink it in a single gulp, and then clap again and say, "Bula!" As you hand back the bilo, you clap three times as everyone joins in.

The Effects of Kava

Kava is said to have a pleasant, mind-clearing effect. It can also have sedative properties and can also cause drowsiness. After one cup you will begin to feel your lips and tongue tingle a bit as if your dentist had applied topical Novocaine. If you like the numbing effect, enjoy a few cups–supposedly there are no hangovers! Like any drug, kava will affect everyone differently and kava's effects depend on the strain of the plant, the method it was prepared, and how it was consumed.

Where to Buy or Drink

While kava was traditionally consumed in the Pacific Islands, it is becoming a trendy drink around the world with kava bars appearing in major cities. Kava is completely legal in most countries, making it easy for shop owners to stock the drink.

You can purchase kava online from various sources. One of the best is Kava.com and is located in Vita, California. They offer kava from various islands in the South Pacific including Hawaii, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, or elsewhere. Kava is also readily available from Amazon, but do note that poor quality kava could cause negative reactions.

Was this page helpful?