Friday lunchtime, at a warung in a quiet street of Banda Aceh. Beyond the storefront, robed men wander towards the glottal prayer call of a distant mosque. Aceh often attracts attention for its brutal application of Sharia law, but for centuries, it’s also been home to an ancient tradition of cooking with marijuana. Some warungs, like this one, still serve the secret recipe.
At first glance the menu reveals nothing extraordinary: Mie Aceh, Kary Kambing, Roti Canai. Am I in the right place? A waiter comes to take my order, and when I mention a code word he repeats it back to me with a wry grin. He winks, then scurries off to the kitchen.
Marijuana has been used as a flavour enhancer in Acehnese kitchens for centuries. The owner of this warung, who wished to remain anonymous, has been serving the dish for just seven years. He says the flavour it adds to the food cannot be replicated, and despite marijuana being illegal, he aims to keep the spirit of Acehnese cuisine alive.
“Marijuana has been used in Acehnese cooking for many, many years. In the time of my grandmother, you could buy marijuana at the market. Almost knew about it, and almost all families used it for cooking. Now, it’s more of an open secret,” he says.
“It’s not used how people might think. The dosage needs to be measured very carefully. You can’t just throw handfuls into the food, otherwise it can make you sick. You need just the right amount to bring out the flavour. It’s used according to tradition. This is our culture.”
The warung owner says marijuana plants grow freely and are farmed in the Acehnese highlands, where he purchases the plant’s ground leaves and seeds. In the city, they’re stored in a cool dry place, and used to tenderise meat and enhance the flavour of noodles, curries, coffee and cake. The grounds are simmered with a sauce before the main ingredients are added.
The waiter returns from the kitchen with a bowl of noodles. It’s served with a thick and aromatic sauce, and small cuts of dark, tender deer meat. It’s rich in flavour. After few minutes after finished the meal, I feel a little woozy. Despite the healthy serving, my appetite soon returns.
Marijuana has been illegal in Indonesia since 1927, when it was banned by a colonial Dutch government. Today, the country has some of the harshest drug penalties in the world, including a death sentence for traffickers and smugglers. The warung owner says Acehnese police largely ignore those who use marijuana for traditional cooking, and instead target smokers, growers and traffickers.
“The police target people who are smoking or smuggling it to other parts of the country. The problem is when people use it for financial gain and not according to tradition or culture,” he says.
An Aide to Aceh’s Governor, Pak Muzailan Affan, acknowledged Aceh’s history of cooking with marijuana. He said it was possible some Acehnese still cook with the secret ingredient, but those who did were operating outside of the law.
“Earlier, yes marijuana was indeed used in Aceh and mixed to make sauce, and as a flavour enhancer," he says.
"Maybe it is still around, but it's not legal and not permitted."
Amongst the Acehnese - who are regarded for practicing a conservative brand of Islam - the religious permissibility of marijuana is a controversial topic. There is no specific mention of marijuana in the Koran, and many Acehnese who cook with the drug insist it is permitted under Islamic law. Mantan Kadis Syariah, Dr Sofyan Ali Muhammed says this is not the case, as any intoxicating substance is khamr, and therefore forbidden.
“Ya, marijuana itu haram. Karena disamakan dengan khamr. Memabukkan, merusakkan, menghilangkan ke saudara. Prinsepnya disitu,” katanya.
Several Islamic holy books, such as Mujarabat and Tajul Muluk provide religious grounds for the medicinal use of cannabis. These holy books, translated from ancient Malay in the 16th century, suggest the cannabis plant is a crucial herbal remedy for various sicknesses like diabetes. Dr Sofyan says while he condemns the use of marijuana, other Acehnese religious leaders may have different ideas based on its medical purpose.
“Begini, karena tidak tertegas di dalam Al Koran dan Hadiz, jadi memang ada pendapat yang berbeda. Tapi di dalam khamr, itu tertegas. Apa lagi mungkin ada juga yang katakana adanya banyak manfaat, ya manfaat pengobatan dan medis dan sebagainya. Jadi memang ada pendapat yang berbeda,” katanya.
Local businessman Junaidi, who owns a restaurant that serves standard food, says while many Acehnese use the herb as a flavour enhancer, they have also valued the health benefits of marijuana for generations.
“When I was a kid, everyone would talk about it. It was used for medicine, cancer, severe pain, to ease the suffering. Now, other countries are realising its health benefits too.”