I caught a glimpse of the sign out of the corner of my eye: “Ma’s Nic Nats & Kava Stop.” I made a quick U-turn on the Mamalahao Highway in South Kona and headed back, pulling across from a laundromat where children chased each other outside as their parents waited for clothes to dry.
From the outside, the kava bar didn’t look like much. But it was starting to rain and I had another hour before I could check into my hotel room. So I climbed out of my car and walked in.
It was a tiny place, with perhaps 10 seats. Tending bar was Ma, the kava stop’s namesake. A Hawaiian woman with a broad smile, she welcomed me in. The bar itself was made of carved mango wood, salvaged from trees cut down to make way for a new coffee plantation.
A young woman from Northern California sat on a bar stool. Her two friends, refugees from Colorado who’d moved to the islands five years ago, sat at a small table. They all held coconut shells with long straws sticking out. Sipping kava mixed with pineapple and coconut juice, they all had relaxed smiles on their faces.
“Try this” Ma told them, as she handed them a long slice of dried fish. “It real ono.”
She made me the same $5.00 kava drink. It tasted good, though I later realized she’d given me a beginner’s draw, nice and sweet. Within a couple of minutes, my mouth began to tingle and I started to feel light-headed. I drank more. (Kava, like coffee, is not regulated.)
I’d seen an awa plant, which the drink is made from, that morning at the Bishop Museum’s Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in South Kona,. A member of the black pepper family, roots of the kava (which is the name for it in Tonga and the Marquesas – Hawaiians call it ‘awa) were traditionally chewed. Then the chewed mass was put into a bowl, mixed with water, and strained.
When the first European visitors came to the Hawaiian islands in the late eighteenth century, Polynesians would offer their drink made from the kava root to these honored guests. It also played a part in religious ceremonies as an offering to the gods.
Nowadays, machines macerate the dry roots into a fine powder which is then mixed with water. The drink’s allure comes from kavalactone, a compound which acts as a relaxant or sedative, with a mild numbing effect. It doesn’t seem to effect mental clarity.
When I told a new friend about my experiment with kava later that night, he laughed and described it as being “sort of like a mud Novocain drink.” He and his wife had tried it in Samoa, where — to hear him tell it — the roots are ground up along with a lot of dirt, making drinking it an experience not unlike sipping from a mud puddle.
Oddly, kava bars are starting to pop up on the mainland, including one called the “Kahuna ‘Awa Kava Bar” in Deerfield Beach Florida. The Yelp reviews of this place are probably more fun to read than the experience of drinking kava itself.
Rony, from Miami, was shocked by the price: “$25 a bowl! Is this stuff harvested by Swiss financial planners?” Another described it as tasting like “pistachio nut shells covered in dirt.”
Mine actually tasted pretty good. Maybe Ma just has a better recipe. She offered my kava up with sweet aloha, giving me a warm hug goodbye. But I don’t think I’ll empty another coconut shell of the stuff anytime soon. I’d love to visit Ma again, but next time will just order a smoothie — hold the kava.
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