The Convivial Cup

Story by Rosemary Camozzi. Photo by Kent Nishimura

It’s early Friday evening and I’m searching for a kava bar in a scruffy part of town. After driving up and down Dillingham Boulevard a few times I finally spot a small sign for Fiji Kava, a hole-in-the-wall tucked beneath a parking ramp down an alley lined with auto-body shops. The owner, Daya Nand, ushers me inside with a welcoming smile, and the smell of car coatings gives way to the aroma of simmering curry.

On weekends Daya offers all-you-can-drink kava for $30. Because it’s no fun drinking kava on an empty stomach, he’s whipping up a big pot of vegetarian curry. He chats as he cooks, and I learn that he’s a fourth-generation Indian fromFiji, he speaks six languages and he has unbounded faith in Fiji’s national beverage. “Kava is a very healthy drink,” he says. Not only is it good for relieving aches and pains, anxiety, depression and menstrual cramps, recent studies suggest it might even reduce the risk for prostate cancer, he says. Moreover, he says it can be an elixir for resolving interpersonal conflicts and family strife. “And it helps you sleep like a baby,” he says.

Kava has long been used throughout the Pacific for medicinal, ceremonial and social purposes. Known in Hawai‘i as ‘awa, it was one of the original plants brought to the Islands by the earliest Polynesian seafarers. To prepare kava, the root of the plant is dug up, pulverized and mixed with cold water to make a kind of tea. The resulting concoction starts by slightly numbing your tongue and ends up leaving you feeling like all’s right with the world. “You won’t even like alcohol once you start drinking kava,” Daya says. “Family relationships will be so good. With kava, the husband offers to help cut the vegetables and clean the dishes. It’s not like alcohol, which makes the husband not want to help.”

I take a seat outside in a lawn chair beneath the shelter of the parking ramp, and Daya brings out two cups of the light brown liquid. “Drink it fast,” he says. We chug our cups together. It tastes earthy and a little bitter, but it’s definitely doable. Daya brings me a second cup and says I should chug half of it then sip the rest.

Pop music spills into the alley from an exercise class underway in one of the auto-body shops next door. Daya circles his outdoor seating area, cleansing the air with incense. Then he brings me a plate of curry, with salad, rice and chutney.

As I’m eating more customers start showing up. One couple, leaving for the Mainland in a couple of hours, came to drink kava to ease their flying anxiety. I wonder how anyone finds this place. The answer seems to be word of mouth, with help from a lot of five-star Yelp reviews. Daya says that his customers have included a professional football player, a famous golfer, an unnamed prime minister, some well-known Hawaiian musicians and many servicemen. “People come sad and leave happy,” he tells me. “They say, ‘I should have come a long time ago.’ I say, ‘No, you come when you are supposed to.’”

Meanwhile, I’ve become full and can’t finish the huge mound of rice on my plate. Daya scolds me: Wasting food is a sin. I tell him that eating too much is a sin, too. After a moment of silence, he gets up and goes back to the kitchen, putting more curry in a container with my leftover rice. “Here,” he says, “eat it tomorrow.” With the kava inspiring us, the problem is solved with no loss of face on either side.

“Kava is an acquired taste,” one Yelp reviewer writes, “but once you’ve had a few, the world is a beautiful place.” As I head home, I have to agree. Everything feels just a little bit nicer, and I can’t resist the urge to smile. HH