Also known as kava or more simply “grog”, yaqona is Fiji’s national drink. Made from the pounded roots of the pepper plant (piper methysticum), it has an earthy, rather bitter taste and resembles muddy water. Although it takes some getting used to, yaqona (pronounced “yan-go-na”) is refreshing and has a relaxing effect upon the body. Drunk socially by Fijians and Fiji-Indians, it is also used in formal situations and will be offered as part of a ceremony to welcome you to a village.
The ritual begins with the presentation of your sevusevu, or introductory gift (see Village etiquette), accompanied by a speech by the village herald. After this, the yaqona roots are mixed with water in a carved bowl (tanoa) while all participants sit in a circle on the floor. Once ready, the drink is served in a half coconut shell known as a bilo. It is presented first to the chief and then to any guests. When it’s your turn to drink, cup your hands, clap once and say “bula” (cheers); you then take the cup and down the contents in one go. Return the cup to the bearer and clap your hands again three times, proclaiming “maca”, a signal of gratification. The formal ceremony ends when the tanoa bowl is empty, indicated by a round of clapping. Throughout the ceremony it’s considered bad manners to talk, turn your back on the chief or to point your feet towards the tanoa bowl.
After a few cups of yaqona you may notice your tongue and lips become numb, a temporary effect caused by the active ingredients in the root. Consuming yaqona in large quantities can case drowsiness, so avoid driving or going swimming immediately after drinking it.