A noble plant with millenary nutritional and medicinal values as well as deep ancestral ties, negative press about Erythroxylum coca has long outweighed the positive. Blame disparaging headlines on cocaine alkaloid, the pharmacologically active component found in fresh leaves that is extracted to produce cocaine. But, good news is on the horizon as South American chefs are helping the world’s most controversial plant to unveil a different side to its character.
In August, the Open Society Foundations (Osf), the world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance, and human rights founded by George Soros, supported a visit to Lerma and Popayán in Colombia organised by SENA national learning service, Tierra de Paz foundation, the Lerma community and the Popayán Gastronomic Corporation, called Industrialising the Coca Leaf in Colombia. Colombia is the world's largest coca producer, cultivating 169,000 hectares in 2018, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (Unodc), followed up by 49,000 hectares in Peru (2017) and 23,100 hectares in Bolivia in 2018.
“Coca leaf has a lot of potential when it comes to agricultural, pharmaceutical and alimentary uses. Given that it’s a unique and ancient product, it’s important to know as much as we can about it,” Catalina Gil, consultant for Osf's Global Drug Policy Programme, says.
Photo Jaime Rodriguez
With regards to alimentary uses, the Osf forum visited Lerma and Popayán, located in Colombia’s Cauca department, bringing together 19 Colombian chefs including Jaime Rodríguez of Celele, Álvaro Clavijo of El Chato and Alejandro Gutiérrez of Salvo Patria. They met local farmers who not only cultivate coca but have started creating coca-based products such as flour and biscuits.
The chefs also had the chance to experiment with coca leaf in its distinctive forms, creating chocolate, crackers, ice-cream, and cakes, as well as pasta, tamales and tempura that use coca flour and mambe (toasted and milled coca leaf). Clavijo of El Chato – recently anointed Colombia’s top establishment in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 awards, ranking number 7 – says the visit has further expanded his recipe repertoire.
“I was first inspired by a trip to Peru after trying a selection of teas in Cusco and started using mambe for a dessert at El Chato; it tastes similar to matcha. The mambe dessert has been on the menu since we opened and is now a classic. In Popayán I started experimenting with whole coca leaves ground in a mortar to use in tamales; I want to use them so that the community can make a living from this product; they also make biscuits and sell whole as well as ground leaves; we chefs are starting to work more closely with these people.”
Energy giving, with the ability to reduce altitude sickness and pain, as well as suppress thirst and appetite, coca is considered a sacred plant by many indigenous Andean communities, who offer leaves to deities such as the Apu mountain and Inti sun gods, and Pachamama (mother earth) in ceremonies; shamans read coca leaves in their cosmological practices.
Besides medical attributes and cultural relevance, coca has been gaining ground in restaurants and bars across South America.
While coca leaf grows in mountain regions, it seems unlikely that a Caribbean restaurant such as Cartagena-based Celele, recently awarded the One To Watch prize at Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019, would use this ingredient. However, chef Rodríguez obtains it from the Arhuacos and Koguis communities, whose ancestors grew coca on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a Caribbean mountain range. He uses it in desserts, such as bizcocho de mambe with ripe breadfruit and sorbet, and a white chocolate, cacao butter and coca flour postre.
“Being in Cauca was an enriching experience and we learned a lot about how indigenous communities view this plant’s sacred nature and how their ancestors worked with it, but also how it also destroyed communities, the dark narcotics side of the story - says Rodríguez - What these people really want is to focus on the ancestral side. Their coca-based fertilisers help to grow fantastic chile pepper and lettuce, and they also use coca in an energising lemonade, as well in bread, candies and other drinks. Some chefs made a coca leaf crust for fish while others played around making ice cream. We all learnt from each other and from the communities – a lot of ideas came out” .
Given that coca also grows in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, chefs in those countries incorporate it into their dishes. At Mil, a new entry that ranked number 30 in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 awards, chef Virgilio Martínez says using coca leaf is a must on his Andean restaurant’s menu.
“I use coca and cañihua powders (rather than flour) in dough at Mil, and coca in particular because of its taste; its bitter notes are interesting and very Andean. Coca needs to be included [on the menu] as it gives a sense of place, time and tradition; it’s very normal in the Andes to pichar or chew leaves and the communities we work with consume coca,” says Martínez.
At Gustu in La Paz, head chef Marsia Taha aims to overcome stigmas. “We want to show the world that coca leaf has a lot of uses, gastronomical as well as medicinal ones, and that it forms part of the Aymara and Quechua communities’ cultures among others.
“We use coca flour to bake bread and, since Gustu opened, have produced a cultivated butter infused with coca leaves, with additional coca leaf dust on top. It’s served with smoked bone marrow cuñapes (a Bolivian cheese roll),” she says.
In Quito, at fine-dining restaurant Nuema led by husband-and-wife team Alejandro and Pía Chamorro, one of pastry chef Pía’s desserts is coca-dominated. She says: “We introduced coca because it contradicts the stigma this ingredient has for being prohibited (when it comes to consuming illegal substances) and for reevaluating Andean ingredients in a gastronomical context. Ecuador doesn’t produce coca, as previous governments stopped production, but the custom of chewing leaves in Ecuador’s Andean region still exists. Our dessert comprises coca and honey ice cream, coca flour crumble and apples infused with coca tea.”
The green plant, which has similar green hues to matcha, is also growing in popularity in cocktail making. Bolivia’s Cocalero spirit (named after the leaf pickers) is made from coca leaf as well as ginger, juniper and orange botanicals. At La Paz’s Gustu, head sommelier Bertil Tøttenborg smokes coca leaves for his concoction A Fucking Cocktail. And at Leo in Bogotá, sommelier Laura Hernández Espinosa pairs a coca-based spirit sourced from the Amazon with chef Leonor Espinosa’s elegant tasting menu that delves into Colombia’s extraordinary pantry.
Hernández says: “Members of the Inga indigenous community produce a distillate from coca and raw cane sugar. The recipe has been handed down via oral tradition through generations, so we try not to be too inquisitive when it comes to learning about their production techniques. Similar to vermouth, it’s great in cocktails, and has medicinal properties as well as health benefits. It’s important that we remove the stigma against coca because it’s an important plant for many Colombian communities.”