Kava

9 Oct

First, an off-topic comment: I felt like it would be remiss to post without a mention of Steve Jobs’ passing, which has affected me to a surprising degree. I was/am a Mac baby: the first computer I ever used was the Macintosh my dad brought home in 1985 (I think; I was only five or six at the time, so my memory is a bit hazy), and I’ve owned nothing but Macs since. (Tom had PCs, and I would use them, but they were always his computers.) Even during Apple’s long years in the desert, before Steve Jobs’ return, I was obstinately a Mac user. Why? Let’s just say, when I sat down in front of that computer as a kindergartner, I was playing games and drawing in about five minutes. Twenty-odd years later, when I was showing my 97-year-old grandmother photos on my iPad, she instinctively reached out and started swiping the screen.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled food programming. Today we’re going to talk about a beverage that Jobs — who found inspiration in both meditation and psychotropics — might have appreciated: kava.

Kava (Piper methysticum) is cultivated and consumed throughout the Pacific, from Vanuatu to Hawaii. Traditionally, the roots of the plant are pounded and combined with water to make a beverage that’s drunk socially or as part of a ceremony. Lately (and by that, I mean in the past five years or so) it’s gotten more mainstream in Hawaii — there’s even a Kava Festival — and that’s where I tried it for the first time. My dad, who works for the University of Hawaii, is part of an informal kava circle that includes professors, students, and anyone else who has an appreciation for the libation, and I usually sit in once or twice when I visit.

It tastes pretty much how it looks.

Not everyone appreciates the unique taste of kava, which takes earthiness to new extremes. Remember making mud pies as a kid? Imagine eating one of those. Or maybe drinking a parsnip smoothie with extra dirt. It’s just as well that kava makes your mouth go numb, so you can enjoy the second cup. Of course, people don’t drink kava for the flavor (which does become oddly enjoyable after a while), but for its effects. Kava has at least 15 unique compounds called kavalactones, all of which are psychoactive; drinking it induces relaxation of the muscles, followed by the mind.

This is NOT what the room looks like after a cup of kava.

The effects of drinking kava have been compared to alcohol or nicotine, but I think that kava is much more subtle. While you do feel relaxed, you also feel alert and focused, rather than incapacitated. It’s more like being a cat in a nice sunny spot than being intoxicated. There have been a number of studies indicating that kava may reduce symptoms of anxiety disorders (I’ve linked to one, but a Google Scholar search turned up almost 200). And it’s an appetite suppressant! If I were a pharmaceutical company, I’d be all over kava. Unfortunately, it got a bad rap in the West after reports of liver damage (sometimes fatal) in Europe and the US, leading to banning by the EU and Canada, and a warning from the CDC. Subsequent investigations — and there have been many — have failed to conclusively link kava to liver damage, and the EU retracted its ban in 2008. It’s been suggested that way the kava was processed for the European market — using the cheaper stems and leaves, rather than the roots — was responsible. In any case, I would point out that there have been fewer than a hundred reports of adverse effects, far fewer than say, fatalities from alcohol use, and that Pacific Islanders have been consuming kava for thousands of years with seemingly no health issues.

But marketing kava as a nutritional supplement is kind of missing the point, like those wine pills. I think to get the full benefits of kava, it needs to be enjoyed in the company of other kava drinkers, talking story. Even if it does taste like a rainforest mud smoothie.

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One Response to “Kava”

  1. Simione Daveta October 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    Sad for the revolutionary that was Steve Jobs. A direct insight into the man was his address at Stanford University. And while his penchant for a daily ‘doobie’ he would appreciate kava as well: http://www.fiji-taro-and-kava.com.

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