One of the cool things about living on the Big Island is the opportunity to experience different cultures; we have such a melting pot of people here. Last month we attended a graduation party for Tali, a young man whose father came from Tonga, a sovereign nation in the south Pacific. As part of the family’s traditions, they made and drank kava for special occasions. This night they invited us to join them. Of course!
The drink is made from the kava-kava plant indigenous to the Pacific islands. In Hawaii it’s known as ‘awa. Tali’s sister, Najeda explained the custom to us. In the old days, this ceremonial drink helped people of differing opinions, or those who might be in a dispute, drink together and calm down, maybe even reach some common ground. It has a mild sedative effect that leaves the mouth a bit numb.
The participants sat on a woven mat. We circled around a large wooden bowl, each with a coconut shell cup. The root of the Kava plant is shaved fresh, or, as in this case, used in dried powdered form. The dried form is available at a nearby local store that used to be known as Sparky’s. Now it’s the Waimea Express, a gas/convenience store with horses painted on the outside.
Tali poured cool water into the wooden bowl and put the Kava powder into a cheesecloth bag. He set the bag into the water and first swished it around to wet it. Then he set about the process of squeezing water through the powder in the bag. The more he squeezed, the stronger it got. Najeda continued to talk story about the preparation of the drink.
“How does it taste?” I asked.
“Sort of like dirt,” she replied without batting an eyelash.
When the squeezer decides it is strong enough, he invites people to request the drink. One does that by clapping cupped hands to make a dull thudding sound. I was game to try it so I did. I handed Tali my coconut cup and he used another to dip into the drink and pour.
I even had a second cup. Soon my tongue felt numb and I was definitely calm, even “happy.” My only concern was that I might not regain my taste before we started eating all the wonderful food our hosts served at the feast. But no worries. My tongue was fully functional when we dug into the goodies about 30 minutes later. I remained “happy” for quite some time.
I even allowed Faye to try some, as I believe it’s good to learn about and honor other cultures’ traditions. At the same time, I’m thankful that she didn’t like it. By the way, this drink is legal in the US. So feel free to indulge.
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