The Mysteries of Kava

Ransom Riggs

Kava is a plant that grows in warm places, the root extract of which many Pacific Islander cultures drink on a regular basis. Is it safe? Should it be legal in the US? Does it fight cancer? There are lots of questions surrounding the nature and use of kava, some of which I hope to answer here.

I first ran into kava a few months ago, when I was traveling through Vanuatu (more about that here), an island chain about two hours by plane northeast of Australia. In brief: it's a beautiful country filled with impoverished but mostly happy people who, on the whole, don't need a lot of money because fresh water and nutritious food are plentiful and there for the taking. One of the few things they do spend money on regularly is drinking kava in kava bars (which are also plentiful). Kava is many things in Vanuatu. It's a social lubricant, though a peaceful one -- unlike bars that serve alcohol, kava's calming properties mean you'll rarely see a fight break out in a kava bar. People are more likely to congregate in small groups and talk quietly, a low conversational hum regularly punctuated by the sound of drinkers clearing their sinuses and horking onto the ground, because among other medicinal properties, kava is a powerful decongestant. Kava also makes the drinker somewhat more sensitive to light and sound -- thus, kava bars are always very dark, and there's never any music playing. You might walk into a busy kava bar and not notice there are dozens of people around you, talking quietly in corners, until your eyes adjust to the dim light. (Pictured above-left: freshly-harvested kava root for sale at market.)

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Its proper name is Piper methysticum, meaning "intoxicating pepper." It is in fact related to the pepper plant, and it is in fact, depending largely on the amount of it which you drink, intoxicating. But in an unusual way, which begins almost immediately with your tongue going numb -- which is a good thing, because the stuff tastes terrible -- followed quickly thereafter by your face, and then your brain, which after two or three servings (called "shells") usually decides it can't think of anything it would rather do than have you sit in a kava bar for a few more hours, horking upon the dirt floor and murmuring with your quiet new friends.

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Kava bar by night. It's actually much dimmer than this, but this is a Vanuatu Tourism Bureau shot.

It's prepared by grinding up the root, mixing it with water, and straining the result through a cheesecloth to remove all the chunky bits. If you go to a kava bar in a town, it's probably been ground up with a blender and is served in little plastic soup-bowls. If you drink kava in a village, on the other hand, its likely been ground by an adolescent's teeth -- gross by Western standards, but effective -- and will be served in coconut shells. Here's where kava is served in a village on the island of Tanna:

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In Vanuatu, kava is traditionally drunk on an empty stomach at sundown, to maximize its effect. Women were never allowed in kava bars or in meeting houses while kava was being prepared or consumed -- if one happened to wander in, the whole batch of kava had to be thrown out and the whole process restarted. These days things are a bit more progressive, and some kava bars -- especially the ones in bigger towns -- serve women. You drink it fast, all in one gulp, and even the locals hold their noses a bit; it looks, smells and tastes a lot like dirty dishwater.

Besides being a decongestant and an anxiety reducer, researchers in Scotland have discovered that kava may also fight cancer. Studies showed that it can kill ovarian cancer cells in test tubes without harming other types of cells, and scientists have linked slightly reduced cancer rates with kava consumption. It's probably no miracle cure, but most experts agree that, if consumed in moderate amounts, kava has mostly beneficial effects on people. However, it's really tough to get in the United States (outside of Hawaii, at least). Sure, you can buy the dried stuff and make it yourself, but it's not as potent and not as good. You'll just have to wait until your next trip to the South Pacific!