For centuries people have grown, harvested, and brewed kava for relaxation and social occasions on the Fijian islands, as elsewhere in the South Pacific. Today, you can order Fijian kava from most kava distributors, whether online or at a kava bar or store. The main island of Viti Levu is the center of Fijian kava production, although Fijians on every island consume kava. Bundles of dried kava root are a popular tourist item in Fijian marketplaces, so much so that one warehouse in Suvu is locally renowned for having an entire floor devoted to selling dried kava root.
Kava is called yaquona (pronounced “yangona”) in Fiji, and the cold brew made from the root is often referred to as grog. Fijians (usually groups of young men) will make grog by pounding sun-dried kava root into a powder that they strain through cloth into cold water in a communal brew bowl called a tanoa, carved of wood and supported on a tripod of legs. The resulting kava “grog” is drunk from a halved coconut shell called a bilo and usually followed by a chaser, a sweet or spicy snack between bowls of kava brew. Traditionally in Fiji, fresh kava root was first softened by being chewed by the young girls of a village; then the gritty material would be strained into water through the bark of the vau tree, although today cloth is used and the root is pounded instead of chewed.
Both in centuries past and today, drinking kava has been a very social activity among Fijians: at the end of the day, groups of Fijians love to gather around the tanoa, socialize, and tell stories between bowls of kava. Kava is a symbol of community in Fiji, and bundles of dried kava root tied with colorful strings are commonly presented as gifts at formal social occasions such as official welcomings, funerals, and reconciliation ceremonies. Visitors to a new village will also bring along a bundle of tied kava root (or sometimes kava in another form) as a gift.
In Fiji, kava ceremonies can be highly formal or more relaxed affairs depending on the context. Much like coffee in the West, many Fijians sip kava throughout the day to promote mental clarity and calm. In an informal Fijian kava ceremony, it usually doesn’t matter who drinks first; however, some people designate the oldest male of their group as a stand-in chief, as chiefs drank first in traditional Fiji kava ceremonies. For a more formal Fijian kava ceremony, the brewing is performed in front of a guest of honor, who sits behind a coconut rope and cowrie shell barrier called a tui-ni-buli. In times past, other participants were forbidden from crossing this barrier (under pain of death!) while the kava was being brewed. A master of ceremonies representing the guest of honor would supervise the brewing process and declare when water could be added to the root, and when the brew was satisfactorily mixed.
The cupbearer would place the first bilo of Fijian kava brew before the guest of honor, who was supposed to drain it in a single swallow, followed by the exclamation “Maatha”, or “It is drained”. At this point, participants in the ceremony would clap hands, and the main event of drinking the kava brew would begin. After the guest of honor’s first bowl, the master of ceremonies would partake of the brew, followed by the ceremony’s other participants in order of their rank. Today of course, most kava ceremonies are more informal and generally open to visitors. When attending a Fijian kava ceremony, it’s generally recommended that Western visitors dress conservatively and drink when invited to partake.
Grog sessions in Fiji usually last several hours, time enough for participants to have several bowls of quality Fijian kava. According to many anecdotal reports, Fijian kava is supposed to be especially good for its calming and sleep-promoting effects; a couple bowls can be enough to beat even persistent insomnia. Because Fiji kava is so good at calming the emotions while leaving thoughts clear, kava is a popular drink at diplomatic receptions and negotiations held by Fijian officials.
As with any variety of kava, you can tell you’ve got ahold of some good quality Fijian kava when the brew slightly numbs your lips and the interior of your mouth after you drink it: this is a sign that your mucus membranes have already started absorbing the kavalactones in the brew. If you’re game to experience a potent calming variety of kava with a vibrant history of social use, Fijian kava just might be the brew for you!