Andrew Marshall has been a professional freelance travel writer and photographer since 1990 and has travelled to over 50 countries, including Sri Lanka, Barbados, Panama, and Morocco to cover a diverse range of travel features for various magazines around the world. Join us as he spills the tea on kava, the unofficial national drink of Fiji.
The bowl was held out towards me at eye level, awash with its muddy contents. I had a moment to think, “Can I do this?” and then I clapped my cupped hands together once to accept, as is the tradition.
Drinking kava is an age-old ceremony that is alive and well in the islands of Fiji. The drink is an infusion made from the pounded roots of the Piper methysticum shrub. When it is first offered, it is considered rude to refuse, and because it is famous for tasting worse than muddy water, it is a challenge many travellers to Fiji will face from time to time.
So there I was with a coconut cup of kava, also known as yaqona or grog, and the eyes of the village chief boring down on me. The bowl was full to the brim—no half measures of mercy here. I raised it to my lips. In the first gulp, you realise two things. Firstly, that ‘they’ are right—it tastes shocking—and secondly, there’s a good chance you might disgrace yourself before you finish. Somehow I managed to get it down and keep it down, though my eyes were watering. I clapped three times in thanks saying, “Bula vinaka,” and the chief rewarded me with a satisfied smile.
In Fiji, drinking kava transcends the ritual ceremony and is drunk socially by many people. Traditionally, it was reserved for chiefs and priests, but today you will likely see people gathered around the tanoa (the wooden kava bowl) just about anywhere.
During my first week in Fiji, I came across kava repeatedly. In the shade of a tree in a quiet street, a group of villagers offered me a bilo (coconut shell) of kava. It’s a great way to meet local people, so I joined them. Later on, in the local supermarket, the Indian owner had a bowl on the go at the checkout counter for anyone who was so inclined. In Nadi, I spent a memorable evening around the tanoa with the hotel owners and other guests singing songs.
In the Royal Hotel on the island of Ovalau (the oldest hotel in the South Pacific), happy hour is kava hour and the tanoa is placed on the bar for everyone to help themselves each evening at 6pm. After a week’s worth of happy hours, I can honestly say I’d acquired a taste for the stuff. Each evening, new guests soon succumbed to my exclamation of, “Oh, but you must try kava at least once during your time in Fiji.”
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So what are the effects? Kava is fast being recognised for its stress-reducing capabilities. America and Germany are now buying vast quantities from Pacific countries for their lucrative health products market, where it is sold in capsule form. On the home front in Fiji, one bilo full is enough to cause a numbing of the lips and tongue. If copious quantities are drunk, it can induce euphoric drowsiness.
The use of kava ceremonially is still very much alive in Fiji. When entering the more traditional villages, it is customary to come bearing a gift of kava roots for the chief (in less formal situations, the already-processed powder will suffice). Known as sevusevu, the offering of kava and the acceptance of it is a welcoming ceremony of great importance.
So when I visited the Devokula Cultural Village—a traditional Fijian village in every sense on the island of Ovalau—I arrived apprehensively, yaqona roots in hand. The sevusevu has three main purposes; to show respect to the chief, to ask permission to enter the village, and to ask for forgiveness for any inadvertent social bloopers that a visitor might commit whilst in the village. I love that: forgiveness in advance, but it’s just as well as there are a few things to remember.
The wearing of hats and sunglasses are out (tough if you’re thinning on top on a sunny day), as the chief is the only person in a village who can wear a hat, and it’s deemed disrespectful to cover your eyes. The display of knees is taboo too, though it only applies to women these days. Another thing to remember: when in the presence of a village chief, remain on a lower level than him, and if he is seated, don’t stand.
The sevusevu ceremony is serious business. In the old days, if you so much as smiled during the ceremony, you could be clubbed to death on the spot! I made sure to keep a suitably solemn face as I was led into the thatched communal meeting house. Another quick ticket to the afterworld was to walk across the braided cord of cowrie shells attached to the tanoa bowl. This cord is laid out in a straight line towards the chief and in the days when kava drinking was a religious ceremony, it formed a connection with the spirits.
The presentation of my gift and request for entry was done on my behalf by an elder. On his knees with the bundle of kava roots, he gave a lengthy speech in Fijian, and permission was eventually granted by the chief, an old man dressed in metres of tapa cloth who punctuated the speech with a soft-spoken, “Vinaka, vinaka” (thank you, thank you).
The brew is made with the powdered or pulverised kava which is then placed in a fine mesh cloth and wrung through water in the tanoa. Thank goodness the old method of chewing the roots prior to infusion and then spitting the narcotic into the tanoa is no longer used. I would have disgraced myself for sure. The first bilo of kava is offered to the chief, then, as the guest of honour, it was passed to me. A good clap and down the hatch with a “Bula vinaka,” and three claps to finish.
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