When The Galaxy restaurant in Manhattan started serving dishes with hemp, the first question most diners asked was “Will it get me high?”
The answer is, “No.” But hemp seeds and the oil made from pressed seeds do come from Cannabis sativa, the marijuana- and hashish-producing herb. Nevertheless, sterilized hemp seeds are legal in the United States.
“If there is any [of the psychoactive drug tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC] in it at all, it would be so minuscule; it would have no effect and couldn’t possibly help anyone get high,” states UCLA Professor Emerita Roberta Hamilton, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry. She also extols hemp oil’s nutritional benefits.
“It has all the essential fatty acids in the best possible balance. And it is better-tasting than any peanut butter you can have.”
The flavor of hemp oil is floral and fruity, similar to that of olive oil, and nutty like walnut oil. And the seeds add a crunchy texture to dishes ranging from chili to cod.
But perhaps hemp’s greatest benefit is its uniqueness and marketability. You can almost bet that your competition next door isn’t offering it.
“I don’t know anyone on the planet who is doing it,” says Denis Cicero, the owner of The Galaxy. “That’s my angle.”
Actually, a few other earthlings are serving dishes containing hemp oil, seeds or cheese made from the seeds. At The Laughing Planet Cafe hemp cheese fills burritos and quesadillas and is melted over veggie burgers. “People are curious about it, and they want to try it,” says Richard Satnick, owner of the 40-seat organic eatery located two blocks away from Indiana University in liberal Bloomington, Ind. But it is more expensive than other cheeses, and the flavor isn’t fine enough to attract repeat buys. The point is novelty.
“Hemp cheese is kind of a conversation piece and lets us do some fun marketing things.” For example, his menu reads “hemp cheese (yup, it’s legal).”
And Satnick ran a radio advertisement with Cheech and Chong impersonators discussing hemp cheese. The ad went something like this: Cheech said to Chong: “No, you don’t smoke it. You eat it. It’s good for you.”
Satnick says he opened the cafe two years ago because he was eating more healthfully and Bloomington’s only health-food restaurant closed its doors. Now he plans to clone the budding eatery in other college towns.
While hemp is big with the tie-dyed crowd, the herb also appeals to creative chefs with gourmet tastes.
Hemp-crusted pink snapper, $21.95, with sauces representing the three colors of the Jamaican flag yellow mango, green spinach and red pepper — appears as a special about twice a month at Mark Ellman’s Avalon restaurant in Lahaina, Hawaii. Ground seeds add crunch to the crust. The dish “has become a fun part of our repertoire because hemp is a little bit taboo,” Ellman explains. “Then when you are able to do a delicious dish with it, people love it.”
Cicero says he added hemp because it appealed to his own tastes. “I’m just an exotic-food person,” he says. “I’ll eat any,thing — bats, snakes…” So he asked his chef, Deb Stanton, to develop a hemp muffin, and she took the mission to a higher level.
Now about 22 percent of the menu includes hemp. “I tried not to be hemp-heavy,” Stanton says.
Galaxy’s best-selling hempen dish is a vegetarian burger, $6.95, made in-house with red peppers, scallions, carrots and milled hemp seeds. Stanton accompanies the entree with fried taro root, carrots a nd potatoes cut into ribbons.
Stanton’s soba noodles are topped with hemp-enriched tahini, garlic-chili paste and a julienne of vegetables, $6.95. And her hemp dressing made of miso, rice wine vinegar, garlic, soy and hemp oil is tossed with organic baby greens, sesame seeds and scallions, $5.95. She crusts cod, $9.75, with Cajun-spiced hemp ground to a texture similar to that of poppy seeds. For a garnish on the salad and cod Stanton dribbles green-colored hemp oil on plate rims.
Stanton does not stop at the savories; she also offers two seed-enriched sweets — Granny’s hemp-crusted apple pie, $5.50, and chocolate bananas Foster with hemp brittle, $5.50. For the pie Stanton incorporates house-ground hemp flour into the crust and Granny Smith apples in the filling. And she suspends whole hemp seeds in a caramel brittle that garnishes bananas Foster.
Despite the endless possibilities of hemp, Hemp World magazine’s editor, Mari Kane, predicts the seeds will first infiltrate vegetarian-type restaurants. “It is a fairly new concept, and a lot of people are just learning what to do with them.”
As new as the idea may seem to many diners, hemp is one of the oldest harvested plants on the planet. “The flowers and seeds have been used as a medicine for thousands of years on all the continents,” Kane says. “It is astounding all the ailments it can potentially relieve. Queen Victoria used it for menstrual cramps.”
Hemp was used throughout the world until the mid-20th century, when, Kane says, the U.S. government outlawed it. Despite the benefits of hemp, it may take some time for chefs to include it in their pantry because of the drug connection. David Burke of Park Avenue Cafe in Chicago and New York and Maloney & Porcelli in New York is one chef who says he currently isn’t interested in adding hemp to his food because of the potential hassles.
Ellman’s guests simply assume he offers hemp seeds because he smokes the herb’s leaves, where THC is heavily present. He says his diner’s typical reaction is, “So now we know what you do in your free time.” Ellman, however, denies the allegations.
“When we opened [The Laughing Planet Cafe], there was a crackdown on marijuana use in Bloomington,” Satnick says, “so we sort of stuck our necks out. But nothing happened. We play very Generation X music. It is definitely an alternative style.” The only official who visited the cafe was Bloomington’s mayor, who came by to eat. And he was ‘amused‘ by the hemp offerings, Satnick says. Actually, none of the restaurants interviewed has had any legal troubles associated with hemp seeds and oil. But a hemp controversy associated with employer’s drug tests has emerged.
According to a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal, a drug-testing laboratory found the presence of THC in urine samples taken from people who have eaten hemp seed candy bars, Seedy Sweeties, sold out of Eugene Ore. The company’s owner, Todd Dalotto, says the seeds can’t possibly contain any THC, and he assumes those taking the tests are smoking pot on the side.
Udo Erasmus, a scientist who has a Ph.D. in nutrition, calls hemp oil “nature’s best-balanced oil.” He says restaurants that serve hemp dishes should warn patrons about the possible positive drug-test results. “There are minor levels of THC in the seed, but you can get strains which are higher than others,” he warns. “It is a new area of study.”
Hemp marketers show less concern. Donald Wirtshafter, owner of the Ohio Hempery, based in Guysville, Ohio, says: “Someone would have to eat a lot of seed [to test positive. We have sold approximately 200 tons [of seeds] in the last five years without any problems. In Europe they laugh at this. A lot of restaurants sell poppy seed bagels, and they clearly give a positive urine test for heroin.”
Most of the seeds are imported from Asia, since it is illegal to grow the plant here.
But who is responsible if a customer has a problem with a drug test — the restaurant or hemp purveyor?
“I’m a lawyer,” Wirtshafter says. “And lawyers don’t like to attach a liability ahead of the issue.”
Captioned as: Far left: At the Galaxy in Manhattan, chef Deb Stanton crusts cod with Cajun-spiced hemp seeds ground to a texture similar to that of poppy seeds. Left: Hemp seeds are incorporated in a caramel brittle that garnishes chocolate bananas Foster.
Copyright © 1996, Nation’s Restaurant News. All rights reserved.