I learned about this very intriguing ingredient only recently, on a work trip to Pithoragarh, Uttarakahand, two years back. I too wanted to know how much of a buzz it was going to provide. While it is borne on a plant more famous for its associations with the hallucinogen marijuana, the seeds are not psychoactive. They are, in fact, a commonplace pantry ingredient in the mountains.
The hemp plant, domesticated in China as far back as 2800 BC, is quite the wonder-crop and can be used to make rope, paper, fabric, biodegradable plastics, and even construction material. Did you know that the word ‘canvas’ is derived from cannabis? In the 17C and 18C it was a very popular crop, even mandatory in many states of the United States. In 1794 George Washington recommended, “Make the most you can of the hemp seed and grow it everywhere.” Till 1985 India had no narcotics policy. The NDPS Act enacted in 1985 under pressure from the USA still includes within it a special provision relating to cannabis that allows its cultivation for industrial purposes and for obtaining seeds.
Some people will warn you against eating it while others will tell you that it is another superfood that has all the 20 amino acids we need, in addition to the right mix of the fatty acids. But, if there is one thing I know about the magical properties of food it is that we don’t really know enough. We are only beginning to scratch the surface on how our health is tied to food and nutrition, hardly enough to make the kind of claims that science so frequently does. Just look at how we have flip-flopped over the last half-century on carbohydrates and fats. Unfortunately, in India too we have started to over-analyse our food, breaking it up into its constituent nutrients in an attempt to eat healthy. It seems to be a losing battle. I wish it wasn’t a battle at all.
I’m glad we had that poori-party when we did! All that frying, as it turns out, was not such a bad idea at all! I even went so far as to say I needed to eat more red meat! “Because food is not just fuel for the body, it is nourishment for the soul.”
With the bhang seeds too, my approach is similar. My interest is not in climbing on to the superfood bandwagon by stuffing myself with an ingredient that seems to check off on so many desirable nutritional attributes but in learning about a new aspect of the myriad cuisines that surround me in this land. When I look at the nutritional profile of an ingredient, it is to understand how much sense its inclusion makes in a traditional diet. The fact that 100gms of the seeds can provide 75% of the daily protein requirement does not mean I will serve myself a bowl-full or put it on top of every other food I eat from now on. Instead I will appreciate that it is considered a ‘warming’ ingredient to be consumed in small quantities. A chutney is a good way to do just that.
Bhang seeds have a coarse hull and, as far as I know, they are not available de-hulled. The thin, watery chutney that I was served with radish batons at a roadside stall on way to Pithoragarh was made with the whole seeds, hulls and all. Some recipes call for straining the finished chutney to remove the hull-bits but that’s just too much trouble. I used a sill-batta (flat stone grinder) this time which did a better job at grinding the hulls fine enough for them to not be bothersome.
The recipe is just a guide and you may add or drop ingredients and adjust the consistency to your taste; fresh herbs are entirely optional. Roasted bhang seeds when crushed release an aroma very similar to that of roasted sesame seeds. The nutty chutney reminds me of Kashmiri walnut chutney (again, made only in winters) and which, perhaps, is why I used yogurt the first time I made it.
Bhang ki Chutney
1/4 C bhang seeds (hemp seeds)
2-3 fresh hot red or green chillies, I used both (or use dried ones or red chilli powder)
coriander and mint leaves, chopped (1/2 C or to taste)
juice of half a lime (or a souring agent of your choice)
Roast bhang seeds in an iron skillet till they crackle and pop. Pick . Place all your ingredients on the sill-batta, including the seeds that might have popped all around. Grind into a chutney using water as required.