My Fijian host prepares to serve me a cup of high-tide kava.
Before heading to Fiji a few weeks ago, I'd been warned about the less-than-desirable taste of kava, the ubiquitous drink that custom dictates a visitor must drink before stepping foot in a Fijian village. "It tastes like muddy water," a co-worker informed me, "and it makes your tongue and lips numb, like after a dentist visit."
Not being fond of dentistry, I tapped the web for a little more information and discovered some information that made the idea of gulping down a puddle slightly more intriguing. Kava -- yaqona in Fijian, or plain ol' "grog," more commonly -- is a mild narcotic/tranquilizer, often used in modern medicine as an anxiety reducer. Mild sedation and vivid dreams are two other common side effects. And it's all natural! Count me in.
Kava is found not just in Fiji but throughout the Pacific Islands. According to Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania -- the same book that started the urban legend connecting Spam and cannibalism -- the technique in making kava varies from island to island. I was happy to find that, unlike in other regions where it is masticated by several people before being spat into a communal bowl, in Fiji the kava root is ground, then squeezed through cloth, much like a giant, hand-wrung teabag.
My first kava ceremony was rather impromptu and occurred in the unused dormitory of a local school. Expecting to find a teacher to interview, I instead happened upon three men who had decided it was time for me to stop my working and share some grog with them. I obliged.
Pounded kava root.
The kava sat in a wooden, turtle-shaped bowl on the mat between us. I'd heard that the kava ritual involved clapping at key moments, and, not being terribly coordinated, I took my cue from the men as they clapped three times before the designated kava sommelier filled my half of a polished coconut shell with the cloudy brown liquid. I'd watched one guy down the stuff in a single gulp, and I was intent on doing the same, mud taste or not. It didn't smell half as bad as it looked. A quick slug and it was down the pipe, a slightly acrid aftertaste lingering on my tongue before it started to tingle away to numbness. Clap. I missed my cue, but watched as the men did another round.
"High tide or low tide?" My host Apao wanted to know how full I wanted my next coconut shell. Not wanting to seem like a pansy American, I downed my next three helpings at high tide. School was out.
Although I did experience some of the numbing I'd read about, it wasn't nearly as acute as all the literature had led me to believe. Perhaps I had a batch of a more mild morning brew, or else they'd taken it easy on a first-timer.
And the taste? Like bad tea, but not wholly unpleasant. By my next kava ceremony, I happily accepted a high-tide coconut shell, many times over.