BA LAO RUENG does not look like a den of iniquity. A two-hour drive from Bangkok, the Thai capital, the restaurant caters to families and the elderly. Wispy curtains frame the windows and doilies decorate bags of cookies available at the counter. The menu offers classics such as yum yum soup and khanom pang na moo (crispy pork toast). Yet a closer look reveals the presence of an illicit ingredient: cannabis.
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Illegal, that is, until recently. For decades, Thailand, like many other Asian countries, has severely punished anyone caught with the demonic weed. But the government has turned a new leaf. In 2019, the country became the first in Asia to legalize cannabis for medical purposes. A year later, the government announced that parts of the plant containing less than 0.2% THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, could be used legally in cosmetics and food. In November of last year, Ban Lao Rueng became the first restaurant in the country to serve cannabis-infused dishes. At least a dozen others have since emerged.
What explains the reversal? The government is increasingly aware that Thailand’s punitive drug control regime is ineffective. The easing of cannabis laws was also politically expedient. In order to put the numbers together to form a coalition, Thailand’s ruling party needed the support of Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of a small party that campaigned for the partial decriminalization of green stuff. He was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Health, and allowed to keep his promise.
There is a long tradition in Thailand of cooking with cannabis. The Thais began to mix the plant, which originated in Asia, with herbal remedies and then with food centuries ago. Even after its criminalization in 1934, many Thais continued to cook with it. Chakree Lapboonruang, a Bangkokian in his thirties, says his father regularly threw cannabis leaves in the pad gaprao (sautéed chicken with basil) he cooked for the family. “When you have something tasty, [cannabis] makes it better, ”Mr. Chakree said. ” It’s like MSG, except it’s natural.
Catering companies are emerging green. In April, Ichitan, Thailand’s largest tea maker, launched two drinks infused with terpene, a compound responsible for cannabis pong. The Pizza Company, a Thai fast food chain, recently introduced “Crazy Happy Pizza”; its toppings include a fried cannabis leaf. Weed is good for business, says Mr. Chakree, owner of Kiew Kai Ka, a trendy restaurant in Bangkok. There’s not enough THC in food to get people high. Yet when customers eat items from his restaurant’s cannabis menu, he laughs, they “get more hungry.”
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Cuisine en pot”