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  • Writer's pictureMichael Acevedo

A Pedacito Of Honoring Polynesian Traditions At The Kava Bowl In Orlando, Florida

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

I am always looking for ways to learn about new cultures and traditions. More importantly, as some of these traditions make their way into the mainstream, I feel a sense of responsibility to understand the original cultural significance and share that story with others. You too have probably seen examples of this, where someone’s traditions become a hot new trend, but the true meaning and significance are either watered down or completely forgotten…

One of these cultural traditions is the preparation and consumption of the Polynesian beverage, known commonly by its Tongan name, “kava”. I’ve started to see lounges popping up around Central Florida that feature kava as a signature beverage and I wanted to know more. I was introduced to The Kava Bowl by a family member who told me that this was an authentic experience that honors and shares the true cultural significance of kava-based beverages.

To my delight, I got way more out of visiting The Kava Bowl, which is located just south of Downtown Orlando at 2345 E Michigan St Suite 4, Orlando, FL 32806. I spent time with the owners (Zion Kalaniu’i and Ariam Kamalani) whose passion for sharing their culture with the community radiated through storytelling, song, and dance as they prepared and shared several bowls of kava with me and other patrons in the traditional way.

The Kava Bowl, Zion Kalaniu’i and Ariam Kamalani, offering a cup of kava
The Kava Bowl owners Zion Kalaniu’i and Ariam Kamalani offering a bowl of kava

Quickly Jump To:

What Is Kava?

Kava is the Tongan name for a plant native to many of the Polynesian islands in the Pacific Ocean. It is also known by other names on other islands, such as “awa” on Hawaii and “ava'' on Samoa. Its scientific name, Piper Methysticum, is derived from latin: “piper” for pepper and “methysticum” for intoxicating. And like its scientific name suggests, Kava is known for the various ways it can affect the human body.

Leaves of the Piper Methysticum plant, called "kava" (Source:
Leaves of the Piper Methysticum plant, called "kava" (source:

Polynesian cultures use the root of the kava plant to produce a drink that some say has a euphoric effect. Don’t worry, it's not like eating “magic mushrooms”, you’re not going to hallucinate or break any laws by consuming the beverage. However, there is research that shows that kava can be effective in treating anxiety. For me I noticed a calming effect that went all over my body, along with a slight numbing feeling in my mouth, but it was soothing and pleasant.

How Is Kava Traditionally Prepared And Consumed?

Kava can be prepared and consumed in various ways depending on the island. In Fiji and many South Pacific Islands, the kava roots are dried out in the sun and then ground into a fine powder. The powder is then placed into a porous cloth bag that, when mixed with fresh water, is slowly transformed into an opaque, slightly oily, milky gray/brown liquid to be consumed as a beverage.

Kava has been served in ceremonies and for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years, but it can also be enjoyed in causal social settings. Traditionally kava was shared between neighboring villages in Polynesia ahead of important discussion or negotiations as well as during important events. This is so the calming properties of the beverage can ease tensions to ensure productive discourse.

Some may also say that it provides a sort of "social lubricant", giving a feeling of relaxation and well being in social gatherings, without the intoxicating effects of alcoholic beverages. Even in non-ceremonial settings, it is important to understand the ceremonial origins and cultural significance of kava.

On my visit to The Kava Bowl I was able to take part in the traditional preparation and consumption of kava. We sat in a circle around the tanoa (the ceremonial bowl where the kava is prepared) and opened the session with a himene (a prayer-like song) led by the owners. Below is a clip of a himene being sung by Zion Kalaniu’i and Ariam Kamalani.

In the modern method, the kava root powder is placed into a fine mesh cloth bag that allows the kavalactones to be extracted and infused into the liquid. The mixture is carefully worked, observing the bubbles, oily swirls, texture and edge of the bowl to achieve the desired consistency.

There are many ways to prepare kava, and this stems from the cultural diversity within the Pacific Islands as a region and within each of the many island. There are likely as many ways to prepare and receive the beverage as there are dialects and languages between the islands. I was honored to be shown a demonstration for one of the ways kava can be received.

  1. The preparer/host will fill your bowl (traditionally a half coconut shell called a bilo in Fijian).

  2. When presented with the bilo, respectfully say "Bula" then clap twice (with palms cupped) before respectfully receiving your shell.

  3. Drink the full contents of the shell quickly to prevent the mixture from separating and sediment falling to the bottom.

  4. Once you drink, clap three more times in respectful acknowledgement.

Remember, this is just one of the many ways kava is received. It is important to recognize, and respect, that this beverage originates from ceremonial practices that differ between villages and islands. Keep this in mind when visiting any kava lounge.

Michael drinking Kava out of a half coconut bowl called a bilo by Fijians
Michael drinking Kava out of a half coconut bowl called a bilo by Fijians

At The Kava Bowl, kava-based beverages are also prepared in an approachable way mixed with tropical and tasty flavors. The “Coco Mango” is coconut milk and mango juice mixed with Kava. Other mixed drinks include the Mai Tai, Chai Tea, Cinnamilk, and Kava Cocoa. I tried a variety of beverages and all were tasty and unique! If you're not sure what to try, don't worry, the owners at The Kava Bowl are super friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful.

Learn More About The Owners Of The Kava Bowl

The Kava Bowl is a lounge serving up tasty non-alcoholic Polynesian beverages made with kava or kratom. The space, like most good finds, is in an unassuming small stripmall just south of Downtown Orlando. I met with the owners Zion Kalaniu’i and Ariam Kamalani, sisters who are passionate about sharing their Polynesian culture through music, dance, storytelling, and through their creative (and tasty!) beverages.

Their parents, Adam and Tee, were also there to share their story and the cultural significance of traditional kava. Tee was born in Hawaii and started performing with her family at just two years old. Tee’s family relocated to Key Largo, Florida but always maintained their connection to their Polynesian heritage.

Adam, although not Polynesian by birth, has learned a great deal about the culture and is passionate about sharing it with others. He even took up wood carving and uses his craft to create art and instruments. Some of his carvings adorn the walls of the lounge.

Adam was taught how to make kava, in the traditional way, by a Fijian woman. The family’s care for preserving, sharing, and honoring Polynesian culture is what led to the creation of The Kava Bowl.

While the drinks and snacks are great, its sisters and owners, Zion Kalaniu’i and Ariam Kanalani, that really help to create a wonderfully inviting atmosphere in the space. Speak to either of them and you’ll immediately see how passionate they are.

Together the duo make music, sing, dance, and share the cultural significance between everything from the instruments that are used to the purposeful movement of the body in traditional Polynesian dances.

The sisters have always been immersed in Polynesian culture. Their mother being a performer, it's no surprise that the daughters too found the love of music at an early age. Together they have traveled to various countries where they have shared their talents and culture with an array of audiences.

When she’s not at The Kava Bowl, Zion performs at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World. Even more fun was to learn that she has worked on several projects for Disney where her voice helps bring the magic to life, including the fireworks show at Magic Kingdom and Epcot. How cool!

Polynesian Culture Comes To Life At The Kava Bowl

Having a physical location allows the sisters to help people learn even more about their Polynesian heritage. The vibe of the space is relaxing yet fun and the seating areas help promote gatherings and conversations.

The walls are adorned with various forms of art, including some of Adam’s carvings. The back room has a pool table with black lighting and a beautiful mural of a woman wearing a colorful floral headpiece and taking a sip out of the bilo (half coconut shell drinking vessel).

The front corner of the lounge has a small stage that serves as a great place for storytelling and sharing some creative and flavorful drinks of kava, kratom, and kombucha. There are various events throughout the week that allow patrons to immerse themselves even more with the culture (or just have some fun!). Karaoke, open mic nights, and musical performances are common, so make sure to follow The Kava Bowl on social media to stay in the know!

Elevated seating area doubles as a stage on select nights at The Kava Bowl
Elevated seating area doubles as a stage on select nights at The Kava Bowl

So what’s the family’s hope for The Kava Bowl? It goes beyond just sharing their culture. “So many people are suffering from stress and depression,” Zion tells me, “and kava can help in a holistic way.” Besides getting a literal taste of the culture, the family has created The Kava Bowl as a place where people can feel safe, comfortable, and relax while also learning and sharing with one another.

Although their grand opening is not until October 23rd, I feel that the family has already succeeded in creating an environment that aligns with their hopes. By honoring and respecting their cultural traditions they are doing a service to the community and their ancestors. If you’re a culture lover like me (or you’re just curious about kava and kratom), you definitely owe a visit to The Kava Bowl!

Sisters and owners Zion Kalaniu’i and Ariam Kamalani are ready to share their Polynesian culture with you at The Kava Bowl in Orlando, Florida
Sisters and owners Zion Kalaniu’i and Ariam Kamalani are ready to share their Polynesian culture with you at The Kava Bowl in Orlando, Florida

Connect & Follow The Kava Bowl

You can follow The Kava Bowl on Facebook and Instagram to stay informed of specials and weekly events. When you visit, let them know you read their story on Pedacitos Travel & Culture Blog!

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