Demonized for its link to cocaine, the ‘sacred coca leaf’, is an essential ingredient of Andean culture

Aug 17, 2023 | 0 comments

By Lucia Diaz Madurga

The ancient inhabitants of the Andes believed that no important activity would prosper if it was not accompanied by coca. In the indigenous worldview, the coca leaf is what makes human activities sacred. It is what blesses the land and the crops, the food that provides energy and vitality to carry out hard work, the remedy for altitude sickness and stomach problems, a symbol of gratitude and a central food in the diet and agriculture.

Widely associated with cocaine, the coca leaf has been widely used in Andean food and drink for centuries.

Consumed since time immemorial, for many native peoples of the Americas the coca leaf has been a symbol of divinity with a cultural, spiritual and medicinal role under which the identity of hundreds of communities has been built. However, most countries see this leaf as the raw material for one of the most problematic export products in contemporary history.

“Culturally, coca is rooted in Bolivian society; to us it is sacred. Bolivia is a country with a strong culture linked to it and, at the same time, we are aware of the worldwide conflict that has grown around it. Luckily, the coca leaf is increasingly present in gastronomy. In our restaurant we use it for many preparations, such as coca butter, bread, cocktails, infusions or ice creams,” explains Marsia Taha, the chef of the Gustu restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia.

However detached from cocaine, coca is still surrounded by taboos and stigmas. This gap between two apparently irreconcilable realities is in the process of being healed through a cuisine that focuses on going back to the origins and recovering its local character, including the ancestral use of this plant.

The sacred leaf
The plant, whose name comes from the Aymaran word khoka — in the language of the descendants of Tiwanaku, the civilization that preceded the Inca Empire — is a generous source of vitamins, proteins and minerals. Calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, sodium, vitamins C, E, B1 and B2 are just some of the benefits that are being sought in the countries where they have traditionally been consumed — Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru — by creating different formats and alternative uses.

Today, coca is used in a number of soft drinks manufactured in Andea countries.

The first use of the coca leaf in the global culinary field was a drink, as explained in the Coca Museum in La Paz, Bolivia. The year was 1886 and John Pemberton was trying to create a medicine for the stomach when, experimenting with coca leaves and kola nuts, he created a liquid that he named after its two main ingredients: Coca-Cola. The plant is not used to make this soft drink anymore, but new projects are seeking to take advantage of the benefits of these leaves of Amazonian origin and leave behind the taboos that surround it.

“In Colombia, Coca Nasa has a giant industrial undertaking. They make soft drinks, beer, tea, cookies, oils and even rum and coca liqueur,” says Alejandro Osses, one of the directors of the Futuro Coca festival, which was created to curb the stigmas surrounding the plant and explore its different uses. The company, created by the Nasa people of southwestern Colombia, grows and consumes coca for medicinal and ritual purposes. In 1998 they started to sell infusions of the leaves, promoting their nutritional properties, and today they have a whole line of food and cosmetic products, including the Coca Beka wine and the Coca Sek hydrating drink.

Something similar is done by Del Condor, which takes ancestral medicine to the modern market in the form of pills made with mambe (the powder of toasted coca leaves mixed with ash from yarumo leaves, used by shamans for spiritual and medicinal purposes), as well as their own Amazonian chai tea made with mate, cocoa, ginger and coca leaf flour. Due to its flavor profiles and its local character, in these areas matcha tea has begun to be replaced by coca leaf tea; one example is the Esmeralda chai, a tea mixed with coca flour, cardamom and clove, which is prepared and sold in powder form at Diosa Café, in Bogota.

It is also an essential ingredient in Andea cuisine.

The coca leaf has also reached haute cuisine. When clients sit at one of the tables of the Oda restaurant, in Bogota — at 8,612 feet above sea level — the first thing they are served is a traditional infusion of coca leaves to treat altitude sickness. “Our supplier is an indigenous person from Putumayo who sends us the dried leaves to be processed in the kitchen without losing their nutrients. In desserts, we have had a mille-feuille with goat cheese and coca powder and a sponge cake with chocolate from the Amazon infused with coca and with powder. When we use this product the amounts must be carefully measured, because it has an invasive and particular flavor,” explains Jefferson García, Oda’s chef, adding that in their cocktail bar they also include the leaf in their Luna de ciervo drink, “prepared with soursop tonic, coca leaf infused viche, prosecco and Tanqueray rangpur.”

Sommelier Laura Hernández has worked for more than a decade on her Territorio project. “It is focused on a way to synthesize the different Colombian regions through distillates, fermented products and traditional drinks. The goal is to transfer the sensations and emotions of each one of these places to a drink,” she says. In her restaurant and cocktail bar La Sala de Laura, in Bogota, Hernández used the leaves to create the Piedmonte distillate, a tribute to the Andean slopes that end in the eastern plains, a land of coca leaves, cocoa nibs and fermented coca.

The goal of all these cooks and their suppliers is to reclaim coca as an ancestral plant and not a drug. From this philosophy arises the mambe noodle ramen with bacon, heart of palm, sweet pepper, corn and cilantro from the Salvo Patria restaurant in Bogota, with which they put one of the by-products of the plant on the table. Many projects revolve around this raw material, such as Onésimo González’s viche macerated in coca leaf, a drink that bears his own name, Onésimo, or Pajarita Caucana by Ginger Blonde, where women from Cauca sell fabrics dyed with coca leaves from which they have extracted more than 96 different colors.

Coca is also being used in liquors bottled in Andean countries.

Despite the multiple uses and benefits of this plant, its demonization has created a worldwide stigma. For this reason, aiming to publicize the numerous projects that exist with the goal of highlighting the historic and cultural importance of these leaves, the Futuro Coca festival, held on July 30 in Bogota, was born. “We have an opportunity to change the dominant narrative based on taboos and stigmatization. Coca is power, it is Andean identity, it is debate and dialogue. And this festival was created so that, collectively, we can imagine a fun and enriching way to relate to this plant that offers us a world of possibilities for the future,” explains Carmen Posada, the other director of the festival.
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Credit: El Pais

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