Pronounced “ah-vah”, which means bitter, awa it is known as the Hawaiian kava drink. Hawaiian awa has many different names, depending on the region in the Pacific Islands and the cultural background. Many know it as kava around the world.
It is called yaqona in Tonga, ‘ava in Samoa, sakau in Pohnpei, and malok in Vanuatu.
Hawaiians have called it awa since it first came to Hawaii thousands of years ago. Awa, in the beginning, was mostly used for religious ceremonies. Certain Gods are associated with the use of Hawaiian awa, offering blessings to crops, hunting, fishing and even unions between families.
Today awa is used for medicinal reasons as well as a social and ceremonial drink. It is used to ease tension and alleviate pain.
The meaning of awa in Hawaii is just as storied as its journey.
How Awa Came to Hawaii
As Pacific Islanders traveled and settled in various parts of the South Pacific, they would take their most important plants with them. This type of plant was originally known as canoe plants.
Awa is extracted from the root of the piper methysticum plant, or pepper plant.
During all the traveling and the years of moving through the Islands, the Hawaiian awa plant lost its ability to reproduce through seed. The Hawaiian natives found other ways to grow it. They used the stems and leaves to propagate the plant.
They would mix and match different strands of awa to create different chemotypes. If they liked the effects, they kept it. If they did not like the effects, they quit growing that version. They spent much time mutating the plant until they found the most noble versions.
Eventually, thirteen noble strands of Hawaiian awa were created that are of the best quality and still available today.
There are distinct differences between the thirteen noble strands of awa. The hardest strand to find of Hawaiian awa is called hanakapi’ai. It has purple nodules and spots all along the tall plant. Another strand is called hiwa and it is a smooth stalk with black color.
Honokane iki is a tall green plant with few spots, while kumakua has internodes. Other strands include mahakea, mapulehu, mo’I, nene, opihikao, pana’ewa, papa ele ele, pap ele ele pup u, and papa kea.
Each of these strands has special characteristics that local farmers know well. Depending on the effect they wish to have, they know exactly which plants to harvest.
It has been noted that only the most common strands can be used by most people. The rarer strands of Hawaiian awa are reserved for chiefs and village leaders.
Preparing Awa Root
There are specific ways to prepare awa to drink. Harvesting the root after a rain makes it easier to remove from the ground. There is a specific traditional preparation of kava.
Most tea is made using the fresh root of the plant. Sometimes the root is sundried and used later. It is chopped into small pieces and pounded into a powder like form. Awa is then mixed with water and strained. In the beginning, awa was chewed to mix with saliva, then spit into a bowl.
The strained liquid is what Islanders consume. Sometimes the awa is put in a kalabash and warmed over hot stones, then cooled again before drinking.
Mixing the awa with water is what makes the kavalactones potent.
Hawaiian Awa Effects
Awa has kavalactones that start with the number four, letting you know it will give you the euphoric and pleasing effects. Other Pacific Island cultures prefer the effects of sedation and relaxation. Hawaiian awa makes you feel relaxed, but at the same time gives you energy and mental alertness.
It is refreshing and can stimulate the body. In addition to having a spiritual element, awa is used for to relieve tensions and everyday pain.
Awa is often used daily by many Hawaiians to wind down from the day’s stressors. It is the perfect replacement for alcohol because it offers you relaxation but without the mind-altering effects alcohol causes.
Awa also makes you feel sociable and in a positive mood when hanging out with your peers. Yet it does not make you act silly or aggressive like alcohol tends to do on occasion.
With awa, you know when to stop drinking it. When you begin feeling calm and happy, you do not have a desire to continue drinking awa. This too is unlike alcohol, with which many people do not know when to stop drink it.
There are specific ways to consume awa to give you the most benefits.
How to Drink Awa
Once the tea is prepared and ready to drink, it is customary to say a brief prayer of gratitude. Traditionally, the shells of coconuts are used as cups. Special awa bowls are designed and created for modern use.
When drinking awa, you do not want to just sip it. It has a bitter taste and most Islanders prefer to gulp it and then chase it with something more flavorful. Some people use bananas or sugar cane as chasers.
Some of the awa remains in the cup and can be poured on the ground, offering a thank you.
There are certain cultural protocols to follow when drinking Hawaiian awa.
Hawaiian Awa Council
The Hawaiian Awa Council was established to assist awa farmers in the growing process. They help farmers maintain the highest quality awa available. There are also awa task forces, awa development council and a protection committee.
The Hawaiian Awa Council makes sure that every cloned awa plant is done in the right condition with the right techniques. They do so by employing top researchers and top kava leaders from around the world. They spend a lot of time educating others on noble kava, its history and its future.
As you can see, Hawaiian awa is extremely important to Hawaiian history and culture. This can be carried over into modern times, even though the method of ingestion has changed.
Awa can now be bought around the world through vendors and online suppliers. It is offered in dried root form, powder form and in the popular instant mix. It is also offered in supplement, liquid and even candy forms.
However you choose to consume awa, you are sure to enjoy the relaxing effects that Hawaiians have enjoyed for thousands of years.