For a restaurant that until recently offered a Class 5 anesthetic, the clientele seemed older than one might expect: a few extended families, including grandma and grandpa; a woman having a quiet lunch with a man who appeared to be her father; a reserved middle-aged couple. Even the decor – cheesy knickknacks, thick curtains, anti-macassars, antique dishes – was anything but nervous.
The setting was Ban Lao Reung, a restaurant in Prachinburi, Thailand that recently became the first in the country to serve dishes made with cannabis. On the day of my visit, customers dug into omelets garnished with marijuana leaves and drank soups flavored with dried cannabis leaf powder. But just a few months ago, possession of these menu items would have resulted in a long prison sentence or a heavy bribe.
Thailand’s drug sentences are notoriously strict: the country has one of the largest prison populations in the world. Many are jailed for drug offenses and the death penalty remains a punishment for drug trafficking. But in 2018, the country’s military-led government surprised almost everyone when it announced it would decriminalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, making it the first country in Asia to do so. More recently, in late 2020, the junta announced that those parts of the cannabis plant that contain less than 0.2 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana), including roots, stems, stems and leaves, could be legally used in cosmetics and food.
Garnish a soup with dried marijuana leaves in Ban Lao Reung (left); Sombat Kowtraul, director, and Amara Akamanon, manager, both from Ban Lao Reung (right).
In Thailand, it is possible to view these recent laws as corrections rather than revolutions. Marijuana became illegal in Thailand in 1934, but only because of international pressure, and Ban Lao Reung’s older clientele could be due to the fact that Thais have long used cannabis in their food.
“My mother is 94 and that’s what she said [cannabis] has been used in the family since she was a child, ”says Sombat Kowtraul, director of the restaurant-affiliated community outreach program. “Her parents always sent her to buy it in the market!”
In fact, an eel curry recipe in Mae Khrua Hua Pa, generally considered Thailand’s oldest cookbook and first printed in 1908, calls for “tender ganja leaves” to have origins in medicine rather than food.
Inside Ban Lao Reung, the decor of which is cozy despite the central importance of cannabis in the restaurant’s kitchen.
“Cannabis was already used as a herbal medicine in the Sukhothai Kingdom [1239 to 1438]”Says Dr. Waleerat Kraikosol, Deputy Medical Director of Chao Phraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital, the nation’s leading facility for traditional Thai medicine. “We used the entire plant – the leaves, the roots, the stems,” she says, adding that in the days leading up to the capsules, dried, ground marijuana leaves were mixed with honey and eaten to encourage sleep. “Much later, people used cannabis in foods like noodle soups. It smells and resembles MSG. It improves the taste. “
Mention marijuana to a Thai person and chances are they’ll think of noodle soup rather than blunts or bongs. Cannabis has been contraband for nearly a century, but it is still spoken of in hushed tones as a secret ingredient in central Thailand’s famous boat noodle, and many popular noodle soup sellers have been accused of adding “addicting” amounts to broth.
“My father said he used it before [cannabis] When I was a kid, at least 40 years ago in the soup, ”says Sittichan Vuttipornkul, the second generation owner of Rod Dee Ded, a noodle soup restaurant with several branches in Bangkok. Was it for the taste? I ask. Aroma? Buzz? “I don’t think he understood what he was doing,” he says. “But science tells us that parts of the plant, especially the roots, contain glutamic acid. This gives our tongues the ability to taste more flavor in food. “
Sittichan Vuttipornkul, the second generation owner of Rod Dee Ded in Bangkok, tries a noodle broth made with marijuana stems and roots.
Glutamic acid is an essential element in monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG. The amino acid strengthens hearty flavor-active compounds and gives foods a boost of umami, the pleasantly hearty, “round” taste that is sometimes referred to as the fifth taste. Research has found that the marijuana plant, especially its leaves, contains a higher concentration of glutamic acid than parmesan, a food that is widely believed to be high in umami.
With the government’s recent announcement, Sittichai was able to reintroduce marijuana into Rod Dee Ded’s noodle soup recipe. He adds dried cannabis roots and branches to the beef broth, which used to be considered junk but now fetch sky-high prices, while marijuana leaves, dry-roasted and ground into a subtle-scented powder, are added to the optional condiments. “In the past, people didn’t have an MSG, so they used it [cannabis]”He tells me.
Similar hearty flavors are also the focus at Ban Lao Reung. In collaboration with experts in traditional Thai medicine at Chao Phraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital, restaurant manager Amara Akamanon has put together a menu of dishes that supposedly do not contain MSG, but are positively filled with umami taste: a savory pan made of minced pork, holy basil leaves and dried marijuana leaves ; a hearty, sour, tom-yam-style soup made from pork, Thai herbs, and dried marijuana leaf powder; and a downright meaty dish made from fresh marijuana leaves, whipped and deep-fried tempura-style and served with a Thai-style dip.
A drink made from tea, passion fruit juice and freshly juiced raw marijuana leaves in Ban Lao Reung (left) and their marijuana tempura (right).
These dishes are not edible dishes – you would have to eat enormous portions to feel tall. And the tiny levels of THC in marijuana leaves only become active when exposed to heat. This means there is absolutely no risk in slamming the restaurant’s refreshing (and very Instagramable) drink, which combines tea, passion fruit, and freshly juiced raw cannabis leaves in a vibrant green hue and taste like a milder wheatgrass.
In the months since Ban Lao Reung made its debut on the menu, a handful of restaurants across Thailand have started serving marijuana-laced dishes ranging from mini pizzas to cannabis bubble tea. It’s inevitably exciting to eat something that was only recently contraband that could potentially reach great value. And medical marijuana advocates tout the purported health benefits of cannabidiol (CBD) found in these dishes. But when it comes to cooking marijuana in Thailand, the main goal seems to be taste, and there may be nothing more Thai than that.
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