Kava (Piper methysticum) or yaqona
Frequently asked Questions
courtesy of FijiBure.Com


Where to buy Kava:

Kava can be bought from grog shops and small stores that are scattered around Fiji. They are open 24/7. There are two different types of Kava, the raw Kava still in root form ("waka" see image below) and the powdered Kava which has been pulped for immediate use. Kava in root form has to be pulped. If you are a guest to a village it is quite acceptable, and preferred, to present the mataqali (elders) with Kava in root form.  

A kilogram of Kava is normally presented to the mataqali when one visits a village. The cost of a kg of Kava varies from F$20 to F$30 (about US$12 to US$20)

How much kava should I buy?

When staying at a village it is normal to buy between half a kilogramme and a kilogramme of kava. It doesn't matter whether it is in root form or powder. If it is in root form you might be priveleged to watch the young men of the village pound the root into powder before it is prepared for use at the sevu sevu. If it is in powder this option is obviously avoided!

Can I take photos or video record parts of the ceremony?

When travelling with FijiBure.com you are more often than not welcome to take photos. You should always check first with your host as he will ask the Chief and mataqali at the start and, if he says yes, you can then photograph or record parts of the ceremony.

Some very simple rules apply:

What to wear at a kava ceremony

Casual clothes like jeans, t-shirt. NO hats or scanty clothing - bikinis or scanty dress above the knee or partially exposing the breasts are a NO NO. Fijian culture is based on respect and conservative Christian values so PLEASE do yourself a favour and dress conservatively. 

The kava ceremony

The kava ceremony is one of the central Fijian traditions. If you go to a village expect to participate in a kava ceremony of some form. It is highly informal yet (like Fiji time) highly formal in its end result. Remember to bring kava to the village- as a sign of your respect for the community. It is also a central symbol of the Fijian culture so behave yourself at the kava ceremony or you will most definately upset your hosts.

Kava ceremonies can continue late into the next day - so know when to leave! (Leave whenever you want - this will not be seen as being rude.) The villagers normally speak in Fijian so, for Westerners, much of what is going on will be lost to them - except for the occasional reference to your name - which shows that you are central to their discussions. The refence to you will be by way of recognition and thanks for your support of the village - nothing negative! Even if you are a single woman amongst a predominately male gathering do not worry as no man in the village would ever dare take advantage of you as the scorn he would have to live with amongst his own community would destroy him. It is interesting to note that most visitors to Fijian Village Homestays through FijiBure.Com have been single women and that they have never ever felt threatened - they have loved the feeling of acceptance among the general village community.

The kava ceremony starts with the presentation of the kava you have provided to the chief and mataqali (village elders). While speaking in Fijian you will know that they are talking about you. The word "vinaka" (Fijian for "thank you") will be heard as the community welcome you into their midst. There is often a small band playing at the kava ceremony - often this band of guitarists, if they are from FijiBure.Com, will also play at a five star hotel in a clinical environment - here you have a private session under candlelight or village lights with villagers, kava and the REAL mood which is lost behind amplifiers, noise and western ways. (We have compiled a CD of Fijian Village music which is now being sold in the villages to guests).

ENJOY - think of our slogan "No worries, be happy"!

Respect is central to the Fijian way of life and in this patriarchal culture the men of the village RULE! That is why so few women will be at the kava ceremony, or if present sit to the side and do not participate. As a "westerner" (male or female) you are treated as "special" and the Fijians are delighted to have you in their midst - not as a novelty but as someone who can be part of their community for the duration of your stay. They are honoured to have you - don't let them down!

Community rules - and while you are there you are part of the village community. (See "sevu sevu" below)

A short movie (2.9mByte) of how kava should be drunk is at this link - don't worry if you get it wrong (we all do)!

What is a "sevu sevu"?

The sevu sevu is the most important traditional Kava ceremony for the guest participating in a village homestay. When you arrive at the village you will often find that your host has organised a sevu sevu at which you will meet the village elders (mataqali) and be accepted during your homestay as an equal member of the village. It is traditional for you, as the guest, to present the mataqali with Kava you bought. This Kava will either be used at the sevu sevu ceremony or be accepted and then stored while other Kava is used in the ceremony.

Image right: the villagers face the guests over a bowl of kava at a traditional sevu sevu

The sevu sevu ceremony involves your host requesting the Chief of the village or his appointed deputy to accept you as a member of the village. He then passes the Kava you have brought to the Chief. When the Chief accepts it (and he always will because of the important role that FijiBure.Com plays in their community) your acceptance is confirmed. The Chief will then speak in Fijian and you will hear the word "vinaka" (thank you) being said by your host in response. He is thanking the Chief for your admission to the village as his guest. From that moment on you are a member of the village, an equal, as if you had grown up in the village.

It is extremely important that you respect the honour bestowed on you by your host. He has, in effect, taken on the responsibility of assuring the village at the sevu sevu that you, his guest, will not offend the villagers in any way.

It is quite acceptable for you to decline to drink kava and the villagers will not be offended if you do. Traditionally kava is swallowed in one gulp - so it is recommended that you request a "low tide" (half a bowl of kava) rather than a "high tide" (full bowl).

What is the difference between a sevu-sevu at a back packers resort or hotel and a sevu-sevu in the village?

A sevu-sevu outside the village is not a real sevu-sevu. It is referred to by those in the know as a "plastic sevu-sevu" - the Fijian holding the "sevu-sevu" will often ask you, with other guests, for your name and place of origin and the actual ceremony will be short with the central theme being the serving of kava and the humour associated with guests who decline to try it.

In the village a sevu-sevu is a serious event. The village Chief and mataqali (elders) sit before you and acting on your host's recommendations welcome you as a member of their community for the duration of your stay. You might also be asked to say a few words. This honour, bestowed on you, makes you and all your family, will ensure that you are known by the village elders - please respect this honour!

It needs to be understood that this is a big honour as Fijian villages do not take kindly to backpackers who just turn up and expect to have a bed just because they flash some dollars.

What is Kava and how does it work?

The active ingredients in kava are called kavalactones. These compounds are destroyed by heat. This is why kava must be prepared or "infused" using cold liquids. Also, since the kavalactones are water insoluble, the kava root stock (image right) must be thoroughly squeezed or "rung-out" in order to release the kavalactones from the root stock fiber. The harder the root stock fiber is squeezed, the more kavalactones will be expressed. The remaining fibre should be almost dry after squeezing.

Image right: raw Kava still in root form

Kava is best consumed on an empty stomach so that all of the kavalactones can be readily absorbed by the body. You will find that drinking a cup of kava will promote relaxation and help relieve the stress of the day naturally. Its ability to relax has been recognised by major drug companies who now buy kava as an additive. It may take a few cups of kava to acquire the taste. It has slightly bitter, peppery taste and grainy texture depending on the strength of the infusion. You will experience a numbing sensation in your mouth. This is completely normal and the sensation passes in about 10 minutes.

Kava is narcotic - not alcoholic and is used in many modern medicines as a relaxing ingredient.

Guidelines on the strengths of Kava
Water Strong Medium Weak
1 liter 30 gram 20 gram 15 gram
2 liter 60 gram 40 gram 30 gram
4 cups 1 oz 0.7 oz 0.5 oz
8 cups 2 oz 1.4 oz 1 oz

The fable behind kava

According to fables, it is said that centuries ago, the King of Tonga visited a distant island plagued by famine. The people had nothing to offer him, so one woman, in her desire to offer the king good food, sacrificed her baby, cooked it and wrapped it in leaves as if it were a suckling pig. The king realised in time that this food was taboo and ordered that the child should be given a princely burial. Out of the grave grew the kava plant which alleviated hunger.

In Fiji kava is now central to communities gatherings while in Hawaii kava is used as a sedative and narcoticum by healers.

Preparing Kava:

Pour the Kava powder into a muslin cloth bag about handkerchief size and immerse into the water. Wrap into a ball and squeeze it hard to release the Kava liquid. Do this about 15 times. The water will start taking on a granular, brownish effect as the kavalactones disperse into it.

The wet Kava powder can be kept for up to 24 hours in the muslin cloth in the refrigerator or freezer for a second extraction.

Traditionally the Kava is strained through special prepared plant strands such as the wild hibiscus bush (VAUDINA)

The taste:

Kava is definitely an acquired taste. however, adding a juice of 1/2 Lemon or Lime and bringing the temperature down by adding a few ice cubes makes it more palatable. Most of the people who had Kava for the first time prefer this taste but do not use ice cold water when you prepare the Kava as you may not get a very efficient extraction - add the ice cubes later.

When you are served Kava in the village you will get it in its natural state and the taste is not unlike highly diluted mud - a bitter, peppery taste with a grainy/woody texture. (Even the Fijians often grimace after drinking a bowl of kava).

After a couple of cups your mouth will tingle and feel numb - this is a symptom of the narcotic effect on your body.

When to have Kava:

The traditional way of consuming Kava is in the evening before or after dinner - without consuming alcoholic beverages. Alcohol increases the effects of Kava and should be avoided. The recommended quantity of Kava per person is about 1 liter of medium strength up to 3 times a week for maximum benefits.

It is traditional to have a ceremonial greeting with the serving of Kava and, if you are in a Fijian village, the elders (mataqali), will sit and join you in a ceremonial experience which dates back centuries.  

Who should not drink Kava:

Kava should not be taken by pregnant women, women with breast-fed babies or people suffering from Alzheimer or Parkinson disease. As Kava causes drowsiness you should not drive or operate machinery (just like alcohol). Unless monitored by a health care advisor, Kava should not be taken with other psychopharmacological agents that act on the central nervous system.

Etiquette:

It is quite acceptable to refuse to drink Kava. Simply put your hand up and shake your head when it is presented to you in a bowl. There is no insult to your host host and no explanation needed.

If you do participate in drinking Kava remember to say "Bula" and then clap your capped hands once before accepting the drink After drinking the bowl of Kava (which should be done in one gulp) hand the bowl back to the person who presented it to you and clap with cupped hand three times again. (The clapping sound should be hollow and not sharp as in clapping in recognition of someone's achievements.)

A recognised term is "low tide" for a small bowl of Kava and "high tide" for a filled bowl of Kava. We recommend a "low tide" until you acquire the taste.