Taki MaiTaki Mai

By Zane Yoshida

The history of kava is a long and interesting one amidst a backdrop of the rich heritage of the Pacific islands.

Did you know that the kava plant, from which the root derives, was named by Captain Cook almost 250 years ago? Or that some of his fellow-voyagers on his Pacific trips were less than impressed with their first brushes with kava?

Captain James Cook

Ever wondered why the Cook Islands are so called?

Well, it was because Captain James Cook, the British explorer, landed on the group of Pacific islands twice in the late 1770s.

Cook was an explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy; he made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean in total and is especially renowned for making the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands, where he was killed in fighting in 1779; he also made the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.

So he is a figure that is well known in the part of the world where kava reigns supreme amongst all beverages. Nowadays there is even a big cruise company called Captain Cook Cruises in Fiji!

Early kava descriptions – not very flattering!

Cook‘s Pacific voyages contributed greatly to Europeans’ understanding of the world – not only in the mapping of it, but in the natural sciences.

Travelling with him on these voyagers were botanists, naturalists and artists, collecting specimens, identifying and naming new species and recording the whole adventure.

The plant from which kava root originates was new to Captain Cook and his men, and it was given the name piper methysticum or “intoxicating pepper”. The calming and sleep-inducing effects of the drink had clearly been witnessed before the naming and, indeed, perhaps Cook was the first white man to have been offered the drink?

If so, it’s likely that he was less than impressed.

One of the naturalists on Cook’s second Pacific voyage was George Foster, who left this description of classic Kava preparation:

“[Kava] is made in the most disgustful manner that can be imagined, from the juice contained in the roots of a species of pepper-tree.  This root is cut small, and the pieces chewed by several people, who spit the macerated mass into a bowl, where some water (milk) of coconuts is poured upon it.  They then strain it through a quantity of fibers of coconuts, squeezing the chips, till all their juices mix with the coconut-milk; and the whole liquor is decanted into another bowl.  They swallow this nauseous stuff as fast as possible; and some old topers value themselves on being able to empty a great number of bowls.”

That’s not very flattering to our beloved kava is it?

Since Cook’s days…

You’ll be delighted to hear that, while we advocate the traditional Fijian preparation of kava, which involves straining the pulped root through cold water, we no longer chew the fresh root first!

These days, the root is usually pounded and mashed in a mortar and pestle before being strained with cold water, using a muslin-like material instead of coconut fibers.

That way we can retain all the wonderful health-giving and relaxing benefits of kava, without compromising its natural qualities!

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Captain Cook and the History of Kava