Kava, the root of relaxation

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Long ago, on one of the islands of Vanuatu, legend speaks of a brother and sister who lived a peaceful life. The girl was very beautiful, and many men traveled from the surrounding islands to seek her hand in marriage — but she rejected them all. One of these suitors grew angry at the girl’s rejection and flew into a rage. The brother rose up to protect his sister, and the two men fought. The suitor let loose an arrow in his anger, which missed the brother and struck the sister, killing her instantly.

The brother was devastated at the death of his sister, and visited her grave daily. On one such visit, he noticed a strange plant growing on the grave which he had never seen before. As time went by, the plant grew larger and larger until an entire year had passed. The brother, still distraught over the death of his sister, went on his normal daily visit, and on this particular day, he noticed a rat chewing at the roots of the plant. As he watched, the rat suddenly died. In his grief, the brother took this as a sign, and he decided to end his life by eating the roots which had killed the rat. To his surprise, the roots did not kill him, but instead took away all his bad feelings, and he shared this knowledge with the people of the surrounding villages. The plant was a kava bush, the roots of which would become the basis of a drink sacred to many of the peoples of Oceania.

The kava plant’s scientific name, piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper,” and it’s an apt description. The root of the kava plant contains compounds known as “kavalactones” which produce a calming, sedative effect when consumed, while the flavor of the root (which is in the pepper family) is slightly peppery and very earthy. I’ve been drinking kava off and on for years now, and I’ve found it to be a very relaxing beverage that soothes the muscles, calms the nerves, and makes for an excellent sleep aid. The flavor can be somewhat off-putting at first, but I’ve grown very fond of it.

Traditionally, fresh or dried kava root would be chewed or pounded into a pulp, then mixed with water and strained to produce the kava beverage. In these modern times, we have two things which make this process easier: prepared, powdered kava root and the blender (although there is something quite compelling in the hypnotic motions of traditional preparation). My basic preparation is as follows:

  • 2 cups water (for best results, use warm — not boiling! — water, around 140 degrees. Cool tap water is fine, though.)
  • 1 cup almond milk (cow, soy, or other milk is fine — we’re looking for a source of fat, as the kavalactones are more readily absorbed by fat and aren’t soluble in water.)
  • 1/3 cup kava (can be adjusted for a weaker or stronger brew)

Blend the ingredients for about five minutes. At this time, I usually pop my kava into the fridge for at least 1/2 hour, but you can strain immediately if you want. To strain, I use a special nylon kava bag that a supplier sent to me after I left a nice review of their product on Amazon, but basic kava bags can be had for a few dollars. Lacking a strainer bag, feel free to use an old t-shirt or a clean nylon stocking to strain. Keep in mind that most mesh strainers are too big and coffee filters don’t work. When I strain, I let the liquid drain into a large bowl, then I squeeze out the remaining liquid from the kava pulp. Save this pulp, as you can usually get a couple of brewing sessions from it (although potency does decrease).

As for flavor, you can enjoy the kava brew as-is, or you can add things to make it more palatable. Many people add chocolate syrup, but I don’t care for the flavor of chocolate with kava. I am, however, fond of adding some Tazo chai latte concentrate to the mix for a pleasant evening brew, but more and more I’ve just taken my kava straight. Two good local sellers of excellent kava are Maison Terre Natural Products out of North Little Rock (mail order) and Dandelion Herb Shop in the Little Rock River Market. It can also be found in bulk on Amazon.

There are dozens of kava cultivars, each the product of over 3,000 years worth of artificial selection by the South Pacific islanders. This means that if you try one type of kava and don’t like it, don’t give up — try another one. Kava, for me, is preferable to alcohol, as the effects aren’t nearly as pronounced and it doesn’t leave me with a hangover. Still, some caution should be taken if you throw yourself a kava-drinking session: don’t operate a motor vehicle or heavy machinery after consuming kava, don’t mix kava with alcohol or prescription drugs, and don’t overdo it — the traditional serving of kava is 4-6 ounces, so the recipe I provided makes for multiple servings. There are also any number of instant kava mixes, pills, and extracts available on the internet, but I can’t speak to them — I prefer to just use the root. So get cheerful, get relaxed, and bula!

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