Eat your greens

Cooking with Cannabis

The edible cannabis scene today is booming, with regulated dosages, a Cannabis Trade Association (CTAUK), legal cannabis farms in certain states in the USA, and current medical research into its possible, proposed health benefits. But before you start thinking “Wasn’t cannabis butter invented by my mate Dave back in the 80s?” think again. Cannabis has been cultivated since the early days of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Pre-historic Chinese found their native plant so useful that they took it with them when moving to settle new ground, and ancient Indians were aware that you could extract the active ingredients of cannabis by heating in oil.

Oily cannabis seeds would have been a source of nutrition, medicine, cooking oil and even fuel. The seeds themselves are not psychoactive, though if contaminated with the resin of the flowers, could become so. This is because the resin contains THC, a psychoactive form of one of the cannabinoids, a class of diverse chemical compounds that act on the body’s cannabinoid receptors. But there is no need to run the risk of contamination with THC if you’re just looking for a simple foodstuff. Hemp is a variety of cannabis bred for its tough, fibrous stems and with very low levels of a compound called THC, and higher levels of another cannabinoid called cannabidiol, or CBD, which is not psychoactive. Nowadays more and more strains of cannabis are being bred that have low-THC, and higher levels of CBD, or one of the many hundreds of other cannabinoids.

“Today, hemp seeds are considered a superfood,” explains Simone Badoux, assistant manager of the ‘Hash, Marihuana and Hemp Museum’, Amsterdam, which is currently running an exhibition called Cannabis Cuisine. “The seeds contain all nine essential amino acids, iron, vitamin E, and omega oils 3 and 6. They can be consumed peeled or whole, raw or roasted, pure or aromatised. Their oil is used as dressings and in cooking, and protein powder is obtained by grinding them.”

Cannabis spread throughout the world, from Classical Greeks and Romans to the Middle East, and onward to North Africa, around the time of Rameses XI in 1050 BCE. By 1545, cannabis had spread to the western hemisphere, and from Spain the plant went onwards to Chile. Native Americans made use of its psychoactive powers, and hemp was grown for use in rope, clothing and paper. From the time it arrived in Europe, its main form of ingestion changed from eating to smoking, with the arrival of tobacco from South America.

An 1813 account by British doctor Whitelaw Ainslie explains the difference in Indian preparations: “The leaves are frequently added to tobacco and smoaked [sic] to increase its intoxicating power; they are also sometimes, given in cases of Diarrhoea and in conjunction with Turmeric, Onions and warm Ginglie oil, are made into an application for pinful, swelled and protruded Piles.” The larger leaves and capsules, called “bang, subjee, or sidhee,” according to Dr Ainslie, were used to make “an intoxicating drink, for smoking, and in the conserve or confection termed majoon.”


By the mid-19th century French artists, bohemians, and intellectuals were experimenting with cannabis as part of the Parisian Club des Hashishins ("Club of the Hashish-Eaters). Comprising of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, and Honoré de Balzac to name a few, its members dedicated themselves to the exploration of drug-induced experiences. Their doctor, writes Théophile Gautier, kept a “greenish paste or jam” in a crystal vase, and served it on porcelain Japanese saucers alongside a golden spoon.

Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish military doctor in India, extolled the virtues of cannabis to England upon his return in 1841, having experimented with its medical use in patients experiencing the wrenching muscle spasms of tetanus and rabies. The latter case, he could not save, but by giving grains of cannabis, he “strew [their] path to the tomb with flowers.” It is often said, with some mirth, that physician to the Royal Household Sir J. Russel Reynolds was so inspired by Dr O’Shaughnessy’s testaments that he prescribed Queen Victoria cannabis for her period and labour pains, in the form of tincture (cannabis extract dissolved in alcohol, a much more genteel method of ingestion than smoking…). While no evidence exists for this particular recommendation, Sir Reynolds did write in medical journal The Lancet in 1890 that cannabis was “one of the most valuable medicines we possess."

Cannabis-eaters became more democratised with the liberation of the 1950s and 60s, despite it being prohibited in the UK in 1928 and in the US with a succession of laws beginning in 1906. It was Alice B. Toklas who brought the idea of cooking with cannabis to the mainstream Western world with her publication in 1954 of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Most of the recipes were French, but one for a Moroccan confection known as “hashish fudge” was so controversial it was not published in the US version of the book. Although the 1968 film, I Love You Alice B. Toklas, makes the fudge synonymous with hash brownies, no chocolate appeared in the original recipe, which was a gift to Toklas from her Morocco-based friend, Brion Gysin. Toklas claimed not to know what ‘canibus’ was, as Gysin spelled it, and did not have time to test out the recipe, thus introducing cannabis sweets without a clue that she was about to stir the metaphorical pot. But it was from there that ‘space cakes’ were born.

Simone Walker explains that most cannabis edibles are infused preparation. ”This means that the active ingredients (THC, CBD and many other cannabinoids) are dissolved in fat by heating the marijuana or hash in butter or oil - usually coconut. By heating, a process of decarboxylation takes place (this process already starts when a cannabis flower is being dried). This process transforms THC-A (non-active) into THC (psychoactive).” Cooking is essential if you want to get high from cannabis or hash; lighting a spliff is just another way of cooking the weed. Cooking with a low-THC strain, such as hemp, will not get you high because it does not contain enough of the psychoactive compound.

EV8Life of Scotland is an online shop that sells low-cost, low-THC lollies, gummies, hard candies and tea made from the leaves and flowers of hemp. Why are they not troubled by the police? Because the THC level is so low that the government classes all of them as a food supplement. Their balms, serums, creams and soap bars are all classified as cosmetic products. “We infuse all our edibles with full spectrum hemp paste, obtained directly from manufacturer Lovecbd, who as a responsible producer lab test all their products. THC content must be 0.2% or lower so that people will not get high from our products,” said a spokesperson. “Full spectrum means that it’s not just CBD and a tiny amount of THC in the paste, but the full range of cannabinoids,” they explain . “Our hand-finished products are accessible to all people, and they are very discreet - our strawberry gummies and lollipops are very small and discreet and can be taken anywhere.” Unlike smoked cannabis, where the effects are instant, infused edibles kick in 45-90 minutes after consumption. This is because cannabinoids pass into the bloodstream much more quickly through the lungs than down the throat, into the stomach, and finally into the small intestine where they’re absorbed into the blood. The effects of edibles are longer, but they carry with them a higher risk of overdoing it, as impatience can lead to eating more than required - though this is more of a problem with homemade products where the dosage is less tightly controlled.

So, what does hemp taste like? Of course, all flavour perception is subjective, but Simone opines, “The taste of most edibles is very herb-like, quite strong. Cannabis plants contain terpenes, which determine their smell and flavor.” George, a Southampton chef, recommends cooking a curry with added hemp to multiply the power of two strong flavours. “Hemp has a pungent, herby, sweet smell with both deep and lighter notes. Some strains have a citrus feel to them, but all of them have an unmistakable aroma that I can only describe as 'unnnnggg'.”

Although intended as foods and beauty products, some people are discovering knock-on benefits to products like EV8Life’s. Some of those with chronic pain conditions report feeling less discomfort, their joints looser. Research is still ongoing as to whether these effects are real, or just perceived. Indeed, higher THC products like Sativex are now available on the NHS to treat the spasticity of multiple sclerosis. For those with other conditions who want the benefits of the non-psychoactive cannabinoids, CBD oil, sweets and teas offer a low-THC alternative that might just possibly chase their pain away.


Did you know?

In 2013, 60,400 kilograms of cannabis were produced legally across the world 

The word “assassin” derives from a secretive murder cult in the 11th and 12th centuries called the “Hashishin”, whose enemies mis-believed that they were drugged into a stupor by their leader in order to perform the deadly act 

Hops and cannabis share a common ancestor from 22.7 million years ago, which is no time at all from an evolutionary perspective.

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