Traditional use of 'awa spans over 3,000 years in time and 4,300 miles of the Pacific Ocean. Today, methods of use vary from country to country and range from chewing the root fresh from the ground all the way to sipping highly refined, standardized extracts. This article will review some of the ways it can be easily used at home.
Chewing fresh root. It is likely that the oldest method of using 'awa was by chewing the long, lateral roots that grow from the base of the plant. To get the most out of the fresh root, select a lateral with at least a pencil-sized diameter, from a plant older than 18 months. Don't use aerial roots emerging from the stump above ground. Several pieces can usually be cut from the mother plant without harming the plant.
Thoroughly wash the root, being careful to notice if there is any nematode damage, indicated by swollen galls on the root. Root damaged by nematodes should not be chewed. Fresh root can be chewed in much the same way as sugar-cane stalks, although, with 'awa root, it is possible to swallow the whole thing. The chewing process takes enough time so that the subtle effects of 'awa will begin while chewing. Generally, a foot or two of lateral root is all that is required tot one person.
Making a drink from dried 'awa. The drink is made traditionally in many Pacific island cultures by straining the dried 'awa powder in water. Here in Hawai'i, the strainer is often a nylon stocking or cheesecloth shaped into a bag, but I use a one-gallon paint strainer, which usually costs under $1.00 at hardware stores.
Figure on 1 to 2 ounces of powder per person, depending on the strength of the 'awa. Place the powder into the strainer bag, hold its edges together at the top with your hand so that none of the whole powder escapes, and immerse the bag into a bowl of cool water. The amount of water will vary according to individual taste, but a good rule of thumb is an ounce of good 'awa to a quart of water.
Use your other hand to knead the bulk of powder under the water, as you would dough. If the 'awa has a high kavalactone content, it will feel oily, almost like a ball of greasy clay. This is the kavalactone resin. The longer you press and squeeze the bag, the less oily it will feel and the more oily the water will feel and look. The water should take on the appearance of mud. To get the most from the already wet 'awa powder, some people place it again in a smaller amount of water and continue the kneading process, then combine this weaker mix into the stronger.
Traditionally, each serving of this prepared 'awa is swallowed in one or two quick drinks from a coconut shell. It's a good idea to space servings at least 10 minutes apart. Kavain, the kavalactone highest in most Hawaiian 'awa varieties, is usually felt quite soon after drinking, but the other kavalactones' effects may not register for 20 minutes or so.
Fresh 'Awa Drink. Vanuatu and Micronesia are famous for their fresh 'awa drinks. Traditional preparation varies by country and region, but the object is to make a wet fibrous pulp out of a combination of lateral toots and stump/basal stem. The more lateral roots, the stronger the drink. A 50/50 mix of root/stump is a reasonable proportion to start with.
First, chop the fresh material to a size that will fit through a Corona Corn Mill or sausage grinder. The object is to grind the fresh 'awa to as fine a consistency as you can. The more completely it is ground, the greater will be the release of kavalactones. In Vanuatu, the kava bars produce a beverage that is one kilo fresh material to one liter water. After the material is ground, place it directly in the water and work the pulp in much the same way recommended for the dried 'awa above, however, at this time there is no filter. After the water becomes thick and resinous and has turned a greenish gray color, you can strain the mix through a fine mesh strainer.
Fresh 'awa prepared this way is much more potent than drinks made from dried 'awa.
Whether your 'awa is fresh or dried, pay attention to the variety you are using and to the effect it is having on you. In some ways, learning to drink 'awa is a lot like developing an appreciation for wine. However, with 'awa, in addition to variations in taste and smell, the different combinations of kavalactones in the many 'awa varieties produce differences in the psychoactive effects, some quite subtle, experienced by the drinker.