For those who don’t know about this beautiful island nation, Vanuatu is an archipelago comprised of 83 separate islands in the Southwestern Pacific ocean. Like most of the Pacific’s island nations, Vanuatu is blessed with a warm tropical climate that happens to be perfect for growing kava, and Vanuatu kava strains are thought to be some of the oldest in the world.
Though it hasn’t been proven beyond a doubt, some kava researchers believe that kava may have originated in northern Vanuatu and spread from there to other South Pacific islands over the centuries. Whatever the truth, kava is a crucial element of Vanutu culture, and in modern times it has become a linchpin of the economy in this small island nation. Village communities have always grown kava for their own use, but now some of the harvest is also sold to “kava brokers” operating out of the larger cities of Port Vila (Vanuatu’s capital) and Luganville.
Walk into any nakamal (kava bar) in Vanuatu and you’ll encounter an authentic brew made from small-batch, village-grown Vanuatu kava. However, the experience of drinking kava in a traditional village setting is quite different from that offered by the big city nakamals. In Vanuatu, kava is traditionally made only from fresh, green roots: the root bundle is harvested with a machete and then chopped into manageable pieces that are ground or pounded to release the kavalactones. The mashed kava root is then placed in a tanoa (bowl) with coconut milk or water and left to soak for a few hours. When fully steeped, the resulting kava brew is filtered through coconut or hibiscus bark fiber into individual serving bowls.
Because kava has a long history in Vanuatu, its use can be radically different from island to island. For many of the islands, kava is considered a sexually charged drink, and women are forbidden from drinking it. On the island of Malekula, kava is associated with a cult of death. (Of course, here in Hawaii, we encourage everyone to drink kava!)
In parts of Vanuatu, it is customary to spill a mouthful of kava as a way of offering some to one’s ancestors. This practice is called tamafa, and it’s roughly equivalent to giving a toast. Perhaps a related custom is that of spitting after one has finished drinking their serving of kava: while it might be rude in the West, in Vanuatu spitting is seen as a show of respect for the strength of the kava, and the practice has even extended to some modern kava bars. New Caledonia (part of Vanuatu) is the home of the kava bar, which originated as a simple gathering spot called a nakamal. This is where the men of the village would traditionally consume kava in the evenings.
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