As the first country in the world to legalize cannabis in 2013, you might expect Uruguay to have a leg up in the cannabis industry. However, like most things in the laid-back South American nation, the Uruguayan approach to legal cannabis is relaxed and tranquillo when compared to the entrepreneurial fervor that characterizes the cannabusiness in the U.S. states that have fully legalized it.
In the capital city of Montevideo, there are no billboards for cannabis brands. Dispensaries there aren’t typically kitted-out with an eye-popping spectrum of cannabis products, from CBD sodas to THC gummy bears. And while you’re likely to catch a whiff of a sweet and familiar scent on any given city block, grow shops and the dispensaries themselves don’t boast nearly the same ubiquitous real-estate-guzzling presence as their counterparts in Los Angeles or Denver.
Marcela Ikeda, innovative chef and owner of the Montevideo-based infused dining experience brand Larica, explains that the cannabis industry’s relatively low profile in Uruguay is due to several factors. The most important of these is probably the aforementioned cultural chillness, though other structural hurdles such as a dearth of labs for testing cannabinoid content in prospective products, the high cost of doing so in a single lab that exists for such a purpose, and some vagueness in the laws around cannabis consumption play a part as well.
Even though its cannabis industry isn’t particularly overt, legalization in Uruguay has given rise to a high level of cannabis creativity and personal freedom. Ikeda and her journey to found Larica are a perfect example of both.
Born in Brazil and raised in Japan, Marcela Ikeda’s path to serving meticulously crafted cannabinoid-infused meals from her cozy Montevideo home was anything but direct. For most of her life, Ikeda didn’t even have access to a kitchen, though now she is a full-time chef. She spent seven years exploring Tokyo (cooking with an electric hotplate when she cooked at all), trained to be a flight attendant, moved back to her native Brazil, traveled through Argentina and worked as a telemarketer, all before creating Larica and serving artful, infused cuisine to clients from all over the world.
Cannabis wasn’t a big part of Ikeda’s life until she moved to Uruguay. Once there, she didn’t seek it out, but rather let it come to her. Her partner at the time offered her cannabis to help her manage anxiety, and she quickly began learning about its benefits, cultivation practices and how it best fit into her life. At the same time she was beginning to explore cannabis, she was taking advantage of living with a fully equipped kitchen to explore cooking. In Uruguay, the laid-back environment and attitudes towards cannabis allowed her own creativity and budding interest in gastronomy and cannabis to naturally merge, which grew organically into a career that she had never before envisioned.
Now, with Larica having grown from a delivery service to a full-scale dining experience brand, she has dedicated herself to welcoming clients into her home, giving them the opportunity to elevate their senses, deepen their connections, seek healing from a wide range of medical conditions and enjoy unique, delicious, hand-crafted meals.
PRØHBTD sat down with Marcela Ikeda in her home/restaurant space to hear about her personal journey and how she’s been able to build a business that effortlessly aligns with her passions.
What was your first experience with cannabis?
I smoked weed for the first time in Japan. I was about 16 or so, and I was going to a concert with my friends. My friends were actually growing weed inside a closet in their apartment, and I didn’t even know what that green plant with all the pink lights shining on it was. My friend was a DJ, so I just thought, “Oh, DJs… special lights, whatever!”
I remember back in 2005, before there were any grow shops there, we would go to gardening stores in Tokyo and buy nutrients for plants. I never knew what it was for, but now when I look back, I see that cannabis came into my life so long ago, and I didn’t even know. I never imagined that I would end up in Uruguay doing this.
What brought you from Japan to cooking with cannabis in Uruguay?
I was very tired of the whole Tokyo lifestyle, which is really crazy. So I decided to move back to Brazil, take some time and see what I could do. I saved a little money and moved back, but things didn’t work because Brazil is a complicated country to live in. I needed another change. A friend I met while traveling around Argentina and Uruguay invited me to rent an extra room in Uruguay, so I took my bike and I came to Uruguay.
I started from zero. I rented his room, and there we had an oven. I never had an oven while living in Japan, only a little hot plate, but now I had an oven with four stovetops! So I started to cook for the first time. I was working as a telemarketer, and I’d just bring things I’d bake into the office. Eventually people started asking me to make things for their cousin’s wedding, for example, and I decided I needed a name for what I was doing. I decided to call it Larica because that means “munchies,” and I have the munchies even when I don’t smoke. I created a webpage and people started to look for me, and I started to sell regular food until one day a guy asked me for a cannabrownie.
This was at the beginning of legalization here. People had flowers but not too many. So I started to cook with prensado [compressed, low quality cannabis]. I went around with a basket to parks or city hall or to parties and sold my brownies. Eventually, I was selling batches of 25, 40, 50 brownies, and then people started coming from overseas and found me. That’s what led to these dining experiences that I do.
How were those people finding you?
It’s interesting. I think it was a combination of things. I started on Instagram, and I was always looking for different modes of social media I could attach my brand to, but that I wouldn’t have to be constantly updating. TripAdvisor is a good example. I just leave my page there, and it gets about 3,000 clicks a month, which I think is pretty cool.
I like to focus more on the people who come to me anyway because if they found me, it was because they were actually looking for what I can offer. That way, I don’t need to promote anything—this isn’t a brand to make money. This is just my lifestyle that I can invite people into. I have a damn cool house to cook, so I can finally, for the first time in my life, invite my friends and people and make food for them. I think that my excitement is part of what makes people want to come and be around for these experiences.
Walk me through what happens for someone who signs up to have one of your experiences.
They have two options. They can either have lunch or dinner. Lunch usually starts at 11:00 a.m. or 11:30 a.m., but it’s a little limited because I work at another restaurant here. Dinner goes from 8:00 p.m. to around midnight. Usually, the meal will include a three-course menu, or sometimes four, which includes an appetizer, a main dish and dessert.
I don’t typically serve alcohol. I usually serve a Brazilian herbal tea called capim santo that helps to potentialize the effects of cannabis, just like mango. Other times I make a very light mango tea with a little light pepper, again to potentialize the effects. This is to start with.
The last experience that I did was in Majorca, Spain, so for the first dish I made a beautiful green salad full of fruits and vegetables and palm. The main dish was octopus with rice. I made two desserts: a cheese pudding and Japanese jiggly cheesecake. The menu changes every time.
Sometimes I use coconut oil for the cannabis. It’s not my favorite, but it’s what absorbs the most cannabinoids. Butter is my favorite of all time. It gives you a hug.
Was cannabis a big part of your life before you started cooking with it?
No, not really. My boyfriend at the time introduced me to it. I remember being so anxious about everything when I’d just arrived to Uruguay, and he presented me with weed—real weed, the green one. When I’d smoked weed before in Japan, I didn’t even see the plant. I just had a joint passed to me and that was it.
Do you remember your first experience eating cannabis?
I’ll never forget it! I fell in love with my ex-boyfriend. We were going to a cannafestival at the start of legalization. Someone offered me a brownie, and I ate it, and I remember on the bus on the way back my leg touched his leg, and I knew in that moment that he was the love of my life.
Is eating cannabis common in Uruguay?
There is no law that says you can sell food with cannabis here, but there is also no law that says you cannot so it’s a bit of a loophole. You can eat it or make it, but you can’t exactly promote it. They’re not technically allowed to sell infused food in the dispensaries, but they do. I was one of the first ones to start doing it, and back then there were only a few brands—or just people like me—who made edibles. Now there’s a lot more. Tourists actually buy a lot more edibles than the Uruguayan people. To be honest, I don’t even sell a lot of brownies anymore.
I think the reason that we don’t have the same amount of edible cannabis products here like you do in California, for example, is that there are hardly any labs here, or any ways to test the levels of the cannabinoids. There isn’t much technology in Uruguay. There’s one lab that will do it, but it’s very expensive. So it’s kind of impossible for a regular small company to do it, and I don’t think they’re really interested in it anyway. There isn’t the same level of ambition here. The culture is much slower and more relaxed.
People from outside definitely do it more than the Uruguayans. Ninety percent of my customers are foreigners. Uruguayans are not really into edibles in general, I think.
What is the general demographic of people who contact you to have the dining experiences you curate?
You can expect a lot of different people, from young curious people to families with health problems looking for actual solutions or relief. That has made me realize this is not a joke anymore. It’s not just a recreational activity for stoners. It involves really serious things.
What’s your favorite thing about cooking with cannabis?
To see people’s reactions. In my space, in my kitchen, I’m cooking so I’m not always right next to the people at the table. So I leave them alone and they talk, but sometimes I look through the door to see what they’re doing. Sometimes I see them holding hands, I see them hugging, I see them crying. It’s so interesting. It feels like they’re feeling so much. This is the important thing for me: to make them feel good. I’ve seen instances of people forgiving themselves or telling secrets and forgiving each other. It can be hard sometimes and very intense, but this is what I like the most about it: to make people feel and to make them happy. I think we’re here to explore our body-mind and our behaviors, and to get better.
What are your plans for the future of Larica?
The plan is to buy a house by the beach and live there with animals and plants, providing a full experience to people like fruit picking, cannabis harvesting when it’s time, and a whole farm-to-table experience for infused cuisine. I want it to have a glass window so people can see the ocean, eat good food and drink green tea. I’m really hoping that it works.