The Spice of Life: A Journey Through India's Cannabis History

India has a rich and diverse cultural heritage, and its cuisine is no exception. This article focuses on one of the lesser-known facets of Indian cuisine: cooking with cannabis. The entirety of cannabis cooking in India is limited to a single traditional additive called "bhang" or "bhaang," made by processing parts of the cannabis plant.

The use of bhang in India can be traced back to the Vedic period, over 3,000 years ago. The plant was considered sacred and was used in religious ceremonies and festivals, such as the Holi festival. In ancient times, bhaang was also used for its medicinal properties, as it was believed to have the ability to cure a variety of ailments, from headaches to digestive problems.

As time passed, bhaang found its way into the kitchens of India, where it was used as a flavoring agent in dishes. The leaves and buds of the plant are pounded into a paste and added to dishes to add a unique flavor and aroma. Bhaang is most commonly used as an inclusion in sweet beverages, such as lassi and thandai. That said, the golas may also be used to lace savory preparations like chutney and pakauli.

One of the most interesting aspects of bhang cooking in India is the number of regional variations that exist. In northern India, bhang is commonly used in mithai, or sweet dishes, while in the eastern and northeastern states, it is used almost exclusively in savory preparations. The use of bhang also varies depending on the season, with the bulk of the production being limited to the spring season, when the plants are fresh and abundant. The way the bhang is made, too, varies depending on the proprietor. Most bhang shops use a blend of cannabis leaves and flowers to make the bhang; some might blend other powders with ayurvedic properties, such as black pepper, which is said to reduce anxiety, which is oftentimes associated with the intoxicating effects of orally ingested cannabis, and/or melon seeds and cucumber for palatability.

Bhang has also been influenced by the changing political and cultural landscape of India over the years. During the colonial period, the British attempted to ban the use of bhang, labeling it a narcotic. This ban was eventually lifted, but bhang continues to face restrictions and regulations, confining availability in most regions to festive seasons, such as Holi and Maha Shivratri.

That said, bhang is openly sold year-round in some regions of India, particularly in the northern regions of Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Bhang can be found in government-authorized shops in these regions, where it is made under strict regulations and guidelines. The process of making bhang involves grinding the leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant into a fine paste, which is then mixed with other ingredients such as milk, spices, and sometimes ghee to create a drink.

Bhang is best consumed with caution, as the cannabinoid compounds are metabolized differently than by other means of consumption. When consumed orally, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, is absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to the liver, where it is metabolized. The liver breaks down THC into several metabolites, including 11-hydroxy-THC, which is more potent and has a longer half-life than THC itself.

The difference between consuming cannabis via inhalation and as an edible is the route of administration and the time it takes for the effects to be felt. When inhaled, THC is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream through the lungs, leading to almost immediate effects. In contrast, when cannabis is consumed as an edible, it must first be metabolized in the liver before it reaches the bloodstream, resulting in a slower onset of effects (usually 30 minutes to 2 hours) that can last longer. Additionally, the effects of edibles can be more intense and longer-lasting due to the presence of 11-hydroxy-THC. Bhang should not be taken in excess of one gola, as doing so can cause anxiety and even cannabis psychosis, especially in the uninitiated. 

In addition to its religious and cultural significance, bhang is also known for its medicinal properties. It is said to have a calming effect and to provide relief from various ailments, including headaches and digestive problems.

Despite its widespread use, bhang remains a controversial topic in India, with opinions on its legality and cultural significance divided. Nevertheless, the ancient tradition of consuming bhang continues to thrive, and it remains an important part of India's culinary and cultural heritage.

Cooking with bhang in India is a unique aspect of the country's rich and diverse cultural heritage. From its roots in ancient religious ceremonies and medicinal practices, bhaang has evolved into an integral part of Indian cuisine, adding depth and flavor to traditional dishes and inspiring new and innovative recipes. Whether you're a foodie, a history buff, or simply curious about the flavors of India, exploring the rich heritage of bhang cooking is a culinary adventure that is not to be missed.