It’s just after dusk on the island of Espiritu Santo in the Melanesian archipelago of Vanuatu. Before grabbing dinner in the stalls of the Luganville marketplace, local men, ex-pats, and visiting divers walk into a thatched hut on the hillside above. Inside there’s a wooden counter next to a large, sink-like basin and, behind the counter, a length of stretched panty hose with a giant lump in the bottom, dripping a gray fluid into a bowl below.
One by one people line up, chug some of the liquid from half a coconut shell, rinse their mouths with water, and spit a few times into the basin. Then they all take seats on benches, lean back, and start to tingle. This is the nightly Vanuatu ritual surrounding kava, a mildly psychoactive drink made from the root of the Piper methysticum shrub. It creates a warm anesthetic feeling, starting at the lips and radiating outward, enlivened by little spikes of euphoria.
Kava has a long history across the Pacific—from Hawaii to Tonga to Micronesia—though some consider Vanuatu its spiritual home. Its uses range from casual relaxation to medical or religious. Modern purveyors prepare fresh kava root by grinding it against a rough coral cone, though traditionally it was prepared by women who chewed pieces before spitting them into a woven sieve. It’s now more common to find mechanically ground and dried kava—it even comes in packets.
Kava contains 15 or more active compounds, known as kavalactones, and Vanuatu is known for having the most potent varieties. Many drinkers of grog, a dried kava-based drink from Fiji, find it less intense than Vanuatu’s versions. Kava products are generally legal around the world, and it’s treated as a dietary supplement in some places. The drink has just started to make an ever-so-slight impact in the West, where it’s being sold as a natural anxiety treatment. Be aware, though: You’ll want to wash the bitter taste out of your mouth.