FIRST, YOUR TONGUE goes slightly numb. Not alarmingly so, but you’ll notice it, so don’t be surprised. The full-body hum quickly follows, a soft feeling of vague euphoria that leaves your skin tingling with every passing breeze and makes your pupils dilate like you’re in love with the whole world.
You peer into the hollowed-out coconut you just sipped from and examine the remains of a brownish liquid in the bottom, a drink derived from a plant whose Latin name, piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper” and whose Tongan name, kava kava, means “bitter.” It is both those things, and a few moments after drinking the earthy tealike brew, you’ll find you’re totally relaxed and very slightly high in an entirely new way.
Kava kava (or just kava) is a flowering shrub native to Polynesia; its roots have been consumed recreationally for centuries by Polynesians as a simultaneous stimulant and relaxant, and supposedly even served to brides on their wedding nights. When sipped, kava kava produces a light, lucid-feeling buzz, relaxing in a completely different way than an alcoholic cocktail or a marijuana gummy. Some people even say it’s reminiscent of MDMA, or ecstasy, albeit in a very low-key, more ephemeral way. The intoxicating effects come from a suite of chemicals called kavalactones (I know; it sounds like a made-up word) that bring on a sense of relaxation, calm and all-over bliss.
Shopping for kava powder can be tricky because there are two kinds of kava root, noble kava and tudei kava, so-called because the effects supposedly can last two days, and most of that is the hangover. Noble kava produces fewer unwanted side effects (I’ve never experienced any at all) and is also a lower-yield crop and therefore more expensive. Tudei kava has traditional medicinal and ceremonial uses, but 99.9% of you definitely want to stick to 100% noble kava, preferably from the lateral part of the root (often labeled waka kava).
Kava is grown in Hawaii and most of the Polynesian countries, particularly Fiji and Vanuatu, which has the most stringent regulations regarding the purity of its kava production and export. So if you want to get the best of the best, buy something with “Vanuatu Waka Kava” on the label. I recommend checking your friendly Seattle-based online megacorporation.
Fair warning, though: Kava has a few asterisks associated with it. Some people are allergic to it, and others find it can upset their stomachs, but the direst warnings involve the potential of liver toxicity, particularly among people with liver conditions. Of course, the same thing could be said about alcohol, which many of us gleefully imbibe. And, according to every available study, Polynesians have been enjoying kava for centuries without harm (though you definitely should consult your doctor before you go sipping something some zany cocktail writer recommends, especially if you are on medication). The general consensus is that problems arise only if you have too much kava too frequently, as with alcohol, and consume it in the form of supplements or extracts, which are processed differently for sale than traditional kava root powder.
Many countries have banned or strictly regulate consumption of kava, but here in the United States, it is perfectly legal. It is nonhabit-forming and is often sold as a treatment for anxiety or sleeplessness (although, once again, that’s usually in supplement form, which I avoid). I purchase Polynesian kava powder and make a drink the old-fashioned way. While there are no specific prohibitions against driving after drinking kava, and you will find people on the internet claiming it actually enhances your cognitive abilities, I certainly would consider myself “under the influence” and wouldn’t do it.
The recommended daily limit is 250mg a day, but that’s the amount for supplements. There is far less than that in a serving of traditionally prepared kava (for a more detailed breakdown of dosages than I could ever provide, go here: kavasociety.nz/blog/2018/2/5/what-is-the-right-amount-of-kava).
To prepare kava the traditional way, you will need a muslin bag, which you can find at craft stores, or a mesh kava bag. Some websites say an old T-shirt works as well, but cheesecloth is, I think, too porous. Measure out 1-2 tablespoons of kava per serving into the bag, place the bag in a bowl and then pour 8-12 ounces of hot tap water (not boiling) into the bag and let it sit for about 5 minutes. Then twist the top of the bag shut, and wring out all the water (and none of the kava powder), and knead the bag for a few minutes in the water (yes; your fingers are part of the recipe) to squeeze out all the kava tea. You even can reuse that same powder one more time for a weaker second brew if you’d like.
Alternatively, throw it all in a blender, whiz for a good 3 to 4 minutes and strain the contents through the bag to avoid kneading. For the strongest effect, drink kava on an empty stomach.
Now, you can drink your kava straight if you want, even out of the traditional hollowed-out coconut, but I find it unpleasantly bitter and chalky by itself. The first time I ever experienced kava was in a piña colada, with the alcohol replaced entirely by the kava. In my opinion, that’s still the ultimate kava cocktail: sweet and tangy and creamy all at once, and appropriately island-themed.
Makes about 2 drinks
4-6 ounces prepared kava (see above)
2-3 ounces pineapple juice (to taste)
2 ounces coconut milk or coconut cream
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker or, throw them all in a blender with ice cubes made from coconut water. Serve heavily garnished with sliced fruit and as many tiki umbrellas as you can muster, and then find a really nice, warm breeze to stand in.