Drinking Kava The Real Way

Two local men in Kosrae, Micronesia, straighten bamboo bark strips before straining kava (also called sakau) through them. The pounded kava root is sitting on the rock and looks like a mound of wet straw. The root was pounded and mixed with water. It will be rolled up in the strips and squeezed. The resulting liquid is mildly relaxing. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Two local men in Kosrae, Micronesia, straighten bamboo bark strips before straining kava (also called sakau) through them. The pounded kava root is sitting on the rock and looks like a mound of wet straw. The root was pounded and mixed with water. It will be rolled up in the strips and squeezed. The resulting liquid is mildly relaxing. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

As with everything else on Kosrae, drinking kava is real. On too many better known Pacific islands, drinking kava has been turned into yet another tricked-up tourist event with people in pseudo native costumes and a lot of fanfare.

Not on Kosrae (pronounced ko-shrye), the easternmost island of Micronesia.

Maybe it’s because Kosrae has been overlooked for so long as people trek to its better known neighbors, Guam, Palau, Yap and Chuuk (Truk).

Here, when you get invited to drink kava, which is called sakau in this part of the world, it’s with some local who’s sharing it as he would with his friends.

 In tropical heat and heavy humidity, local Kosrae man squeezes sakau (kava) from strands of hibiscus bark through metal strainer and into coconut shell. Sakau (kava), is a mildly intoxicating and relaxing drink. Photo by Yvette Cardozo.

In tropical heat and heavy humidity, local Kosrae man squeezes sakau (kava) from strands of hibiscus bark through metal strainer and into coconut shell. Sakau (kava), is a mildly intoxicating and relaxing drink. Photo by Yvette Cardozo.

Kava is that muddy stuff folks drink to relax. The root of the kava plant (related to pepper) is pounded, mixed with water, placed onto a mat of tied together hibiscus bark strips and wrung out like laundry. The resulting bitter, sludgy liquid is much stronger than kava you get anywhere else.

It is, actually, one of the few truly successful exports from Kosrae.

You don’t drink the stuff for its taste, trust me. Playground mud is probably tastier. But the drink has a mild relaxing effect. And here, it’s a social event.

We weren’t at some cultural center but, rather, way back in the forest, down a long, rough dirt road at the home of Emilson Phillip, who supplied the root and a picturesque rushing stream for sound effects.

We found his friend Alder Sam already at work, pounding the gnarled roots with a softball sized rock until they became a mound of straw. He added a bit of water, kneaded the mess and then carefully placed a fat line of the stuff atop the strips of hibiscus bark, which he then twisted and squeezed.

Young kava plant. The roots are pounded to make the kava drink, a mildly relaxing liquid that tastes like mud. Kosrae, Micronesia. Photo by Yvette Cardozo.

Young kava plant. The roots are pounded to make the kava drink, a mildly relaxing liquid that tastes like mud. Kosrae, Micronesia. Photo by Yvette Cardozo.

Muddy liquid streamed into a half coconut shell and was presented first to the oldest person there, which happened to be me. There’s a bit of ceremony involved where you bow and offer the cup with two hands — and then, being first, I was asked to drain it to the bottom.

Yes, it tastes like — mud — slightly slimy mud (thanks to the hibiscus bark, they said).

We had half a dozen rounds until my lips tingled and I was, indeed, quite relaxed.

“We do this every week,” Sam said. “We have a group and we go to a community center.”

No, they don’t pass around a coconut shell. The kava liquid goes into a large plastic basin where everyone dips his coffee cup.

Yes, I slept like the dead that night. And no, there’s no hangover.

Dawn at Walung, isolated village on Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Kosrae Office of Tourism: www.kosrae.com

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