Kava (or Kava Kava) is an ancient ceremonial tea and has been around for centuries dating back over 3,000 years in the Pacific Islands of Hawaii, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Polynesia. The tea is made from the ground up roots of the Piper methysticum plant, a pepper plant. It is said that the frequent consumption of the Kava drink is why the people of the South Pacific Islands are known to be the happiest and friendliest in the world. Kava is not a psychedelic drug nor does it contain any traces of alcohol. Nevertheless the root does have sedative and anesthetic properties. Taken in proper doses the tea will promote an anti-anxiety effect and relaxation of the body. The ceremonial tea is currently heralded to be the national drink in Fiji, and is widely consumed across the pacific.
The drinking of kava in the United States is casual, but in the western Pacific islands it plays a central role in ceremonies including marriages, funerals, traditional hula, healing, and initiations for young boys and girls to adulthood. Being presented with Kava in Hawaii means you have been welcomed and that a gesture of peace has been made.
Traditionally the tea is prepared in a fascinating way. It is explained best by George Forster, a young naturalist on Captain James Cook's second Pacific voyage in 1777:
"It is made in the most disgustful manner that can be imagined, from the juice contained in the roots of a species of pepper-tree. This root is cut small, and the pieces chewed by several people, who spit the macerated mass into a bowl, where some water (milk) of coconuts is poured upon it. They then strain it through a quantity of fibers of coconuts, squeezing the chips, till all their juices mix with the coconut-milk; and the whole liquor is decanted into another bowl. They swallow this nauseous stuff as fast as possible; and some old topers value themselves on being able to empty a great number of bowls."
European law and religious officials were so disgusted with the traditional preparation that they made it illegal to prepare the kava drink in this way, and forced the islanders to prepare the tea by grinding and grating the root stock.
It is still unclear how the Pacific Islanders were introduced to the root but legend has it a lonely and depressed man was walking through a jungle looking for a place to end his life. He came upon a tree and saw a rat chewing on a the root. After a minute the rat stopped fell asleep into a deep calming slumber. The man saw this and decided to try chewing the root himself. He became so overwhelmed with happiness and a sense of calm that he forgot his previous quest and returned to the village.
Short term effects of kava are mild and it has been claimed that long term high abuse effects can be quite severe with various problems associated with the liver akin to alcohol abuse. As a result, European, Asian, and North American countries banned the sale of all kava products up until recent years when various researchers concluded there was no clear evidence that any liver damage reported was caused by the consumption of kava (Waller et.al, AHPA 2002, University of Illinois) Many attribute the scare to Merck Pharmaceuticals to bring down sales of the natural alternative.
Today Kava has been making a comeback and is rapidly gaining popularity. In the city of NY Kava is becoming known as a household name and is regularly introduced as a substitute for alcoholic beverages.
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