Making Bhang Thandai: How I learned to chill and trust Shiva
I was feeling lost in the summer of 2005, the year I graduated from college. I was waiting tables at Star Seeds Cafe, an infamous 24 hour punk rock diner, and working a temporary gig as a page designer at the Austin Chronicle, the town’s alternative weekly. I had this BJ -- what the geniuses at the University of Texas call a Bachelor of Journalism -- and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I started applying for jobs at small town papers across America. I finally got an offer from a paper in a lumber town in Wyoming. They warned that the town’s ratio of men to women was 10-to-1 and they wouldn’t recommend that I be out after dark. At least they were honest. I declined.
After two semesters of Hindi and taking up tabla, it became apparent to me that I was curious about my roots. I had a huge family in India and I had only seen them every couple of years growing up. When my gig at the Chronicle ended, I decided to move to Mumbai to see what would happen. It’s not like I had a job or a partner tying me down. Though, my family in India would have liked to remedy the latter.
Two weeks after I arrived in Mumbai, my grandmother died.
Two weeks after I arrived in Mumbai, my grandmother died. It was heartbreaking. I had finally made a commitment to get to know her and learn the language that divided us. That opportunity slipped away. It was also beautiful. It was so different from the way we deal with death in America. In the Hindu tradition, family members and not a mortician take responsibility for cleaning the body and preparing the soul to pass to the next realm. I was lucky. I was the only person in my immediate family that got to see her before she passed. My dad got to India a day late. I had never seen him cry before.
After about a month of mourning, I tried to piece my life together in Mumbai. I landed an internship at the city’s first English language daily, DNA. I started taking tabla classes at the renowned Sangit Mahabharati school. I devoured books like Shantaram and Gandhi’s autobiography, and researched all the places I wanted to visit.
What did my Lonely Planet book just say?! Bhang lassis?! I was now on the lookout at every restaurant and beverage stand for the words “special lassi” on the menu. While in Mumbai, I never encountered the milky weed confectionary I was looking for. I guess my family didn’t frequent places that serve them and I was almost never without a chaperone.
In December, I finally got the opportunity to travel alone. It was the first time since I’d arrived without a family member in sight. They never would have left me at the bus stop if there wasn’t someone waiting for me on the other side. After arriving by bus in Panaji, also known as Panjim by Portuguese colonizers, I hitched a ride from a cute boy on a motorcycle and met up with my American friends: two tall, Belgian Bhuddist brothers from Seattle. They had already been in Goa for a few days and were looking for something quieter. Their bags were packed, so we boarded a train for Gokarna.
I didn’t know this at the time, but Gokarna is a sacred pilgrimage site for Lord Shiva, also known as the “Lord of Bhang.” Shiva is a blue throated god with a cobra coiled around his neck, one of the main gods in the Hindu Triad. He is known as the destroyer of ego and false attachments. After destruction, Shiva is the regenerative force of creation and is symbolized by an amorphous phallic stone called a lingam. The atmalingam, or the soul (atma) of Shiva, resides in the Mahabaleshwar (All-powerful) Temple. The vibrations are strong there. It is said that worshipping this phallic representation of Shiva’s soul will help rid you of negative impurities like ignorance and pride and facilitate positive spiritual growth. There’s a long, complicated legend about the lingam’s journey from the Himalayas to Gokarna, involving a demon king and a cow’s ear. I’ll leave it up to you to Google.
Every time the three wheeler skidded off the railless path, I prayed the Gayatri Mantra. It’s my go to Sanskrit shloka when I’m totally out of my mind and English just won’t cut it.
Every year, thousands of people travel to Gokarna for Maha Shivratri, Sankrit for “The Great Night of Shiva,” a solemn, introspective festival where people stay up all night to worship him. It’s one of the occasions, like Holi, where the Indian government makes allowances for people to consume cannabis. So it was apropos that my first taste of bhang happened there.
It was late December, but preparations for the late February festivities were already under way. After my walk around town, I returned to my hostel near the beach where my friends were chilling. One of them noticed that “special lassi” was on the menu at a little beach shack nearby. My ears perked up!
A man standing behind a tiny counter under a thatched roof poured two glasses of cold lassi, full of nuts, spices, and most importantly, weed. I looked at the yellow green liquid for a moment, stared at my friend’s towering European build and asked, “You drank this whole thing and you were ok?” My six-foot-tall friend said, “Yeah.” The entire eight ounces of bitter lassi went down without another thought. I had eaten “space cake” at a couple of college parties but it was probably made with schwag. Little did I know that cannabis quality, weight, height, and personal constitution all contribute to the potency of edibles. I was about to find out the hard way.
We drank the lassis right before making the trek to another hostel on a more secluded beach in Gokarna. By the time we got back to our original hostel, I could already feel the bhang kicking in. I had just stepped into a mini Durga mandir (temple) thinking it was the door to my hostel. When the women tending the deity saw my shoes on, they immediately started yelling at me to get out! I could tell this was going to be a wild trip!
Getting to the other beach required a hike or a treacherous rickshaw ride on an unpaved cliff. By the time we climbed into the rickshaw, I was officially really high and freaking the ‘f’ out. Every time the three wheeler skidded off the railless path, I prayed the Gayatri Mantra. It’s my go to Sanskrit shloka when I’m totally out of my mind and English just won’t cut it.
We finally made it to the beach, but there was at least half a mile of sand between us and the new hostel. The two American brothers had no problem letting the small Indian men carry their backpacks for them. Even though I was high, I was aware of the optics of the situation and I insisted on carrying my own. The rest of the group was way ahead of me as I dragged my heavy backpack across the sandy beach, collapsing half way through to take a five minute nap. I finally made it to our room, where I curled up on the floor vomiting, crying, and spooning my backpack, convinced that I would die.
Fourteen years later, here I am getting into the cannabis industry, trying to rediscover my roots again, but this time through the historical lens of weed. I needed to reexamine my relationship with bhang, so I scheduled an afternoon cooking session with my partner in crime, Christopher.
Thandai is called thandai, siddhi, sawi and sukhe in Punjab. In Bombay and central India it’s known as bhang, ghota, or pang. It’s sidhi in Bengal and dudhii in Rajasthan. In south India it’s called ramras or ram rasain.
Bhang is the Hindi word for a paste made from ground cannabis flower and leaves. Along with the other spices and nuts it is said to be beneficial for your health. With the right dosage, it will improve your mood. In India, bhang is usually added to milk or yogurt to make dairy-based beverages, or ghee for creating savory and sweet dishes. Bhang recipes vary from region to region and cook to cook. For example, milk-based bhang thandai is called thandai, siddhi, sawi and sukhe in Punjab. In Bombay and central India it’s known as bhang, ghota, or pang. It’s sidhi in Bengal and dudhii in Rajasthan. In south India it’s called ramras or ram rasain.
The last time I had thandai was on the set of Bong Appétit. The producers of Vice’s weed food show were looking for a South Asian female willing to smoke on camera. Through some introductions from previous guests, they found me.
The man who made the thandai spent a lot of time in India chasing landrace strains and said he had been taught the most traditional way to prepare it. He was white and I was skeptical, but he spoke better Hindi than I did so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. His preparation spanned two days.
I’d given us one afternoon.
The culinary uses for bhang are endless – chai, lassis, curries, sweets. Since we’re in the middle of the Bay Area summer, we decided to try out a recipe for thandai, which literally means “something which is cooling.” The active ingredient in any bhang drink, whether it be thandai (milk based) or lassi (yogurt based), is bhang paste. In India you can buy the premade paste in a goli (ball or pill) or in a tube. Traditionally it’s a time consuming process because one grinds the leaves between two stones or uses a mortar and pestle. We started with a mortar pestle and quickly switched to a Cuisinart spice grinder to speed up the process -- we live in California, not Kolkata, after all.
None of the recipes we found quite hit the mark on the flavor profile we were searching for. So we decided to make our own.
The recipe and process we based our own on came from Archana’s Kitchen. We were excited by her use of almonds, poppy seeds, and fennel. You don’t have to use nuts in a thandai recipe, but it does add extra fat for cannabinoid absorption. Unfortunately, Archana’s recipe didn’t include instructions for making bhang paste. We referenced this Herb article, which seemed to be in line with what I was reading on other South Asian blogs. It was just the clearest recipe to follow.
The whole process took a few hours but most of that time was spent waiting for the thandai to cool. We were working on some other styling projects but I could feel the anxiety creeping in. Among other things, I thought it might taste gross. The bhang lassi in India was really bitter and cannabis-forward while the bhang thandai on Bong Appétit was thick and sweet.
After the thandai was properly chilled and garnished with coconut, saffron, and powdered pistachios, four of us timidly took a shot. We were immediately floored. Not by its potency -- edibles don’t work that quickly -- but by its taste! It was absolutely delicious and everything I was hoping for. It was cold, light, and had a savory sweet kick. We were on cloud nine before the actual weed even kicked in. Had it not been for my current knowledge of dosing, I might have made the same mistake as I did in my 20s and drank a whole glass, but I refrained.
After Christopher and his boyfriend left us to go grab dinner, my husband, Shane, and I kicked back happily chatting and reflecting on our day, cleaning up, and beginning to prepare a meal. It was night and day in comparison to how I felt in Gokarna more than a decade before. In the moment, I was optimistic about my life path and feeling joyous about the day’s success.
We had just fed my five-pound chihuahua, Koki, and let her outside to do her business. A few minutes later, we heard her barking. It wasn’t the usual bark; it sounded aggressive so we ran outside. It was dark where she was, in the corner of our sprawling yard. Before we could even reach her, I heard her yelp in pain like I’ve never heard before. My heart raced. Shane yelled and lunged at the raccoon that had her in its jaws. The raccoon dropped Koki and lunged back at Shane. Koki ran out of the darkness and into my arms.
I was shaking and crying in the waiting room. The bhang thandai kicked in as we were waiting for her results. At first I thought I might have a panic attack, but eventually I eased into the wave. I was able to calm down until the doctors gave us their official diagnosis: she needed to be sedated while they cleaned her wounds and stitched her up, but she was going to be ok!
With my ego destroyed and my earthly attachments tested, I am again a blank slate.
Our dinner plans were thwarted and we ended up in a Taco Bell drive through while we waited for the call to come pick her up. We were still buzzed, but able to joke and darkly fantasize about how we were going to have a “raccoon red wedding.” Thank Ganesh we only had one sip.
It’s two weeks later now. My baby is going to get her stitches out, and my relationship with bhang is still a complicated one.
I don’t think that the bhang caused this traumatic experience. It was a crazy coincidence or perhaps a karmic payback by the Lord of Bhang. Any sense of accomplishment or self importance that I felt that night was surely obliterated. With my ego destroyed and my earthly attachments tested, I am again a blank slate.
I probably will try bhang again. I still have three golis in my fridge. But I will do so with intention and the utmost respect for this prasad.
Notes on dosing: That was my story, but remember millions of people consume bhang all over South Asia during Holi, Mahashivratri, and other holidays. In my experience, cannabis enhances or amplifies the feelings that you are already feeling. So try to set the mood, and do what’s right for you. If you need some extra help, check out our edibles dosing guide before taking the plunge.
Now, without further ado, here is The Grass Agency’s Bhang Thandai Recipe.
THE GRASS AGENCY’S BHANG THANDAI RECIPE
20 g cannabis bud
2 tsp sugar
¼ c water
1 tsp oil (we used avocado oil)
cheese cloth for straining
4 c milk, full fat
¾ c sugar
Saffron, a few strands
2 tbsp poppy seed
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1/4 c blanched almond
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
3 cardamom pods
1 tbsp pumpkin seeds
1 tbsp pistachios
1 tbsp fennel
1 one-inch piece of ginger, grated
¼ tsp star anise powder
1 tbsp bhang paste
Powdered pistachio nuts
HOW TO MAKE BHANG PASTE:
1. Crush the bud and sugar with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder.
2. Put the crushed sugar and bud mixture, oil, and water in a pan and bring to a boil.
3. Set the flame to low and let it steep for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a little more water if necessary to avoid burning your bud.
4. Cool the mixture to room temperature.
5. Once cool, blend the mixture until it’s a paste.
6. Use the cheesecloth to strain the paste if there is too much liquid. Save the extra liquid to use in another sauce. If you’re brave, just take that nasty shot and go on a trip.
You should be able to make 3 to 4 tablespoons or bhang golis. Use 1 tablespoon for this recipe and save the rest in your refrigerator for up to a couple of months.
MAKING THE BHANG THANDAI:
1. Blend all the thandai masala spices, nuts, and 1 tablespoon of bhang paste into a paste. (You could also buy powdered spices to avoid all the blending, but we love the full taste you get from freshly blended ingredients.)
2. Bring the milk and saffron to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Add the masala mixture and sugar, and use a whisk or a hand blender to mix until sugar has dissolved.
3. Turn the heat off and let the thandai cool. After it has cooled, put the thandai in the fridge and let it chill for five to six hours. We were in a hurry so we transferred the thandai to a pitcher and put it in an ice bath for two to three hours. You can also add ice directly, but that might dilute the flavor a little bit.
4. When it’s chilled, pour it in a glass, garnish, and get weird!