Colombian chefs aim to decolonize national diet – with the coca leaf

Every day, hundreds of coca plants, the primary source of cocaine, are extracted from the ground by anti-narcotics police patrolling the most remote corners of rural Colombia. But coca remains very popular in the countryside, especially among indigenous communities. Across South America, the coca plant has been considered sacred for centuries – often served as tea or roasted and ground into a powder that is placed between the cheek and gums to bring out the flavor.

Today, in high-end kitchens, coca is being collected by a new generation of chefs across the country who are experimenting – within the confines of Colombian law – how to use the controversial ingredient for an exquisite range of specialty dishes. In doing so, the cooks, along with activists and researchers, pay homage to the country’s indigenous traditions and ultimately decolonize the Colombian regime.

“We want people to understand the coca leaf better,” says Dora Troyano of the Coca for Peace Alliance, an association of farmers, researchers and activists that funded a cookbook on coca this year. “We try to fight fear with knowledge. “

Why we wrote this

Stigma can lead to misunderstandings about cultures and practices. In an effort in Colombia, some chefs are trying to reclaim the value of the coca leaf.

Bogota – Colombia

Friday lunchtime at Mini-Mal, a Bogotá restaurant of modern Colombian cuisine housed in a pretty two-story Victorian building, buzzed with crowds in costumes and heels.

Basically, Antonuela Ariza, the chef, prepared the dish of the day: the Color of the Andes. It’s made with purple, pink, and yellow tubers, native to the highlands of South America, and the highlight of the plate was a crispy batter, wrapping a shiny, smoky trout in a casing made from powder. of coca.

Every day, hundreds of coca plants, the primary source of cocaine, are extracted from the ground by anti-narcotics police patrolling the most remote corners of rural Colombia. But here, in this upscale kitchen, Coca Cola is redefined by Ms. Ariza as she plunges a pistachio green mass, molded into a crescent shape, into a deep fryer. She joins chefs at upscale restaurants across Colombia who are experimenting – within the legal limits of Colombian law – how to use the controversial ingredient for an exquisite range of specialty dishes. In doing so, they pay homage to the country’s indigenous traditions and ultimately help decolonize the Colombian diet.

Why we wrote this

Stigma can lead to misunderstandings about cultures and practices. In an effort in Colombia, some chefs are trying to reclaim the value of the coca leaf.

“We want people to understand the coca leaf better,” says Dora Troyano of the Coca for Peace Alliance, an association of farmers, researchers and activists that funded a cookbook on coca published this year. “We try to fight fear with knowledge. “

Antonuela Ariza, chef of the Mini-Mal restaurant, prepares tubers for the Color of the Andes dish, in Bogotá, Colombia, on November 12, 2021.

Coca noodles?

This re-imagining is only happening with a handful of companies that have obtained permits to grow or market the leaf. The cultivation of coca, a leafy shrub native to the South American highlands, has been largely banned since the 1960s to suppress the trafficking of cocaine around the world. The ban has been particularly strict in Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

Yet coca has remained very popular in the countryside, especially among indigenous people. Across South America, it has been considered a sacred herb for centuries – often served as tea.

Over the past decade, finding new, tastier culinary uses for the coca leaf has been the mission of a new generation of chefs to help debunk the myths and stigmas surrounding the plant. Nineteen of them published an online cookbook in April showcasing their coke concoctions – from ice cream and ramen noodles to empanadas and the appetizer served at Mini-Mal one recent afternoon.

Once the coca flour is mixed with cornmeal and water, the dough is molded around pieces of shiny smoked trout to make an empanada. It is then fried to a golden hue and served at the Mini-Mal restaurant in Bogotá on November 12, 2021.

Decades of the American War on Drugs have led many to confuse coca with its best-known derivative, cocaine. Many, especially city dwellers who have never encountered the plant, are unaware that coca does not induce the same effects as drugs and that to extract cocaine from the leaf requires an arduous process, involving a toxic mixture of gasoline, cement, ammonia, caustic soda. , and other chemicals.

Ms Ariza says she started conjuring up recipes with coca around a decade ago, using it as flour or mambe, a roasted coca powder, which has become more widely available in small, indigenous businesses. There weren’t any cookbooks or recipes available online at the time, so she started experimenting on her own. She found it helpful to consider coca flour as a gluten-free alternative; she considered mambe to be a South American equivalent of matcha, a powder of green tea leaves used in Japanese cuisine.

But it has also historically looked at the plant, before the invention of cocaine, in particular by presenting it to new audiences. “We told them where these leaves came from, how the natives chewed leaves to converse, solve problems, educate young people, and they were moved because they finally understood that this vision of coca that they had, had been created by strangers, people. outside Colombia, but also people outside Colombia [Indigenous] community, white people, ”says Ariza.

“Gunpowder can be used for magnificent fireworks,” she adds. “But if it’s in a bullet, it can kill you.” It’s the same with coca.

Coca-cola as a delicacy is growing, alongside conversations about indigenous peoples’ rights, but it is moving slowly, Ariza says, due to regulations surrounding its use.

Diners at the Colombian capital’s Mini-Mal restaurant chat while eating gourmet dishes prepared with ingredients sourced from the far corners of the Andean country.

US-led crackdown

Most of the coca in Colombia is targeted for eradication as part of a US-backed strategy to stop the production and flow of cocaine to the north. In 2020, more than 130,000 hectares of coca were destroyed in Colombia, or about 35% of the total hectares planted that year.

Under Colombian law, certain indigenous communities are allowed to plant, harvest and market coca. But even small indigenous businesses have been pushed back by the government for selling products such as soft drinks, liquors, cookies, flour and teas. Today, only about two dozen have managed to sell coca products.

One of the successful ones is in the town of Lerma, where the Coca for Peace Alliance has obtained a special permit from the government to conduct research on the plant and help local farmers sell to local farmers. restaurants like Mini-Mal.

As part of the cookbook writing process, Alliance Coca for Peace brought the chefs to Lerma. Previously, the city was ravaged by violence between rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the military, but now farmers make a living without the threat of violence by harvesting legally grown coca.

Herney Ruiz is a Lerma native of Aboriginal descent. Today, the coca that he and his family grow is used for food, he says, not to finance war.

“We are pleased to see that so many Colombians, Andean peoples, are returning to coca, who is our teacher, our medicine and our food, ”says Ruiz. “Whenever we eat coca, whether it’s on a dish at a restaurant or chewing the leaves at home, we make peace with it. [the plant]. “


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