Why Restaurants in South America are Turning to the Coca Leaf
Forget quinoa. In South America’s culinary capitals, the controversial coca plant is the new breakout star of kitchen and bar.
Coca leaf, or hoja de coca in Spanish, is an ancient cultural staple in the Andes Mountains of South America, where indigenous farmers have long chewed the plant’s dried leaves as a pick-me-up for long days in the fields. Unlike cocaine, its infamous chemical byproduct, coca leaf is a mild (and legal) stimulant akin to black tea or coffee; it's also a superfood, rich in calcium, potassium, phosphorus, vitamins B1, B2, C, and E, protein, and fiber. Tradition, nutrition, and just a hint of prohibition? That’s an irresistible combination for imaginative chefs in the region, who are helping coca turn over a new leaf as a key ingredient in everything from bread to beer.
Lima, known for its gastronomic derring-do, is the center of culinary coca creativity today. Virgilio Martinez of Central, which recently broke into the ranks of the S.Pellegrino World's Best Restaurant list in the world for its rotating menus featuring Peruvian ingredients, says coca leaf was a natural choice. “Beyond the mysticism, rituality, and history of coca, it just has a nice flavor,” says Martinez.
The restaurant sources fresh dried coca directly from indigenous communities who’ve been growing and consuming the stuff for centuries, but, he says, “our use of the product really goes well beyond those traditional uses.” Currently, the restaurant is serving green-tinted pan de hoja de coca—bread made with coca powder-infused flour and served with earthy herbal butter—and chocolate-and-tropical-fruit tart punctuated by paper-thin coca-pastry strips.
Last year at Astrid y Gaston, one of the first moves of the pioneering restaurant’s new head chef, Diego Muñoz, was to create Virú, a three-hour tasting menu that explored Peru’s culinary heritage from the Andes to the Pacific. The “salad course” consisted of frozen, sweet coca-encrusted leaves, as “part of a tribute ritual we paid to the sacred mountains, a gesture of respect and thanks for their harvest.” Virú ended its run this past August, but Muñoz says he plans to continue using coca in other menus to come.
Bogota has a complicated relationship with the coca leaf, given Colombia’s notorious cocaine trafficking industry. However, several establishments in the capital are dedicating themselves to reclaiming coca’s sacred cultural significance. Decorated with carved wooden masks and colorful textiles, Embajada de la Coca opened in Bogota's posh north side in mid-2013, with a changing menu of "ancestral indigenous cuisine" including quinoa-and-coca tortilla, beef tenderloin in coca-rum reduction, and dishes featuring other ancient ingredients like maca root and tropical uchoa fruits.
The thimble-size Nasa Tul Coca Café in the bohemian downtown Candelaria neighborhood, is run by a cooperative of Nasa indigenous people, who traditionally produce and use coca for its nutritional and medicinal qualities. The shop sells not just earthy coca-zucchini bread and chocolate chip coca cookies, but also beer and rum made with coca, plus coca-infused balms and salves, said to relieve pain from arthritis, PMS, and other ailments.
Modern Santiago isn’t exactly coca-leaf territory—except at the buzzy, year-old Chipe Libre (282 José Victorino Lastarria). Here, well-heeled locals sip chilled “coca sours,” a coca-infused twist on the classic—made with your choice of more than 60 piscos from either Chile or Peru—on the shaded terrace.