Saturday, January 31, 2009


Sakau is not alcohol. It is a liquid extracted from the sakau plant, Piper methysticum. The chemical that gives you the high is found in the roots. All that needs to be done is to get that chemical from the roots into your blood stream.

The process of drinking sakau in Pohnpei is very elaborate. It involves a lot of custom and a lot of ceremony. There is a hierarchy involved. I don’t profess to have a full understanding of the sakau ceremony, but I think I know the basics.

Removing the sakau plant from the ground. Only the roots are used in the drink.
Sakau is made from the roots of the sakau plant. When it is ready for harvesting the plant is removed from the ground and the roots are cut up into individual stalks. When I saw it being prepared the Pohnpeian men were cutting the trunk about an inch above the root stalk and cleaning soil from the roots using coconut husks. I’m not sure what is done with the rest of the plant. Firewood, perhaps?

The roots are cut away from the rest of the plant.
The drug is squeezed out of the pulp using water and strips of hibiscus bark. The species I saw them using, Hibiscus tiliaceus, is a plant we use in some of our plantings on Saipan, so I recognized it.

Piper methysticum
Cleaning the roots with coconut husks.
Several two-inch wide strips were peeled from an eight-foot length of wood and tied together at the center. The strips were folded over on each other and then soaked in water.

Stripping hibiscus bark to be used for squeezing the sakau.
Once a large enough amount of roots are prepared they are piled onto a sakau stone, a coffee table sized slab of granite placed on the ground.

Prepared roots piled on a sakau stone.
Men remove their shirts and sit around the stone systematically pounding the roots into pulp. It looked to me like most of the men started by banging away at the thickest end of the root and moved down towards the thinner end. Soon the roots were  nothing more than a big pile of brown pulp, slightly moist from the water inside the fresh roots.

The sakau pulp is pulverized with stones.
I had a hard time distinguishing the smell, but I think it is a sort of musky peppermint. It may also have been the variety we were drinking. I’m sure not all sakau smells the same.

sakau stone
The banging of the pulp goes on for a long time.
When the sakau pulp was ready to be squeezed, the strips of hibiscus bark were laid out on the sakau stone and filled with some of the sakau pulp.

The sakau master then folded and twisted the bark with the sakau inside, sort of like someone squeezing water out of a towel, until a goopy brown substance started dripping out of the pulp.

pohnpei sakau
The sakau is wrapped in the hibiscus bark and then squeezed like a wet towel.
At first the goop was thick and slow, but after consecutive wrappings and squeezings, it started to ooze out faster and thinner.

sakau ceremony
The sakau mixes with some slimy liquid from the hibiscus to make the drink.
When it was the proper consistency for drinking, it was captured in a coconut shell and passed around.

sakau drink
The sakau is then scraped out of the hibiscus bark and the process is repeated over and over.
The most important person drank first and then other important people followed, one after another, after which the sakau was offered to everyone.

angelo villagomez
Taking a drink with my eyes open. Bad form, Mr. Villagomez.
When the coconut shell containing the sakau is handed to you it is expected that you will take a gulp and hand it off to the person next to you. The cup eventually makes its way back to where the sakau is being prepared, is refilled, and is passed around again. This is repeated over and over until the drinking session ends. Depending on where you sit and how aggressive you are in letting it be known that you want to drink, you can expect a drink every ten minutes or so.

The Pohnpeian men I watched drink sakau all made an ugly face as they prepared to drink. They closed their eyes, threw back the coconut shell with flourish, and grimaced like they had just ingested something very disagreeable, which of course they just had.

When the cup was handed to me I looked down at the odorous pool of liquid with the consistency somewhere between heavy cream and snot (some of the sakau I would try was so thick that I felt I almost had to bite down to stop drinking it), I put the drink to my lips and swallowed.

It takes about two seconds for the sakau to take effect. At first your tongue and lips go numb, then your throat. It feels good.

Taking a gulp when the cup came around the second time was much easier. You are already a little numb and your sensibilities that tell you something that looks, tastes, and feels like sakau shouldn’t be ingested have dulled.

With the second gulp comes more numbness, more relaxation. I became very talkative.

As the minutes passed into hours your mind remains clear, but your body gets slower. When I stood up I felt clumsy. My motor skills were impaired, but my cognitive ability felt the same, if but a little relaxed.

I was not hung over the next morning on the nights I drank sakau. On the contrary, I felt like I slept more soundly and felt well rested when I woke up.

Having tried sakau three times on this trip I can now spend the rest of my life not drinking it ever again.


Anonymous said...

Well done Mr. Villagomez. I'm surprised they let you take photos. That camera flash would be as startling as the kids outside throwing rocks on the tin roof. Just to rattle the elders.

Lil' Hammerhead said...

There used to be some sakau bars on Saipan in the early 90's

g00$e said...

There's still one on Capitol Hill, across from the fire station.

Very sanitized area you partook in. The Saladak bar I took my first cup in had pigs mingling with the patrons, and the concoction handed around contained a lot of body sweat from the pounders.

Did they tell you about the worms and the skin discolorations?

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