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

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




On any given day, hundreds of coca plants, the raw source of cocaine, are yanked from the soil by anti-narcotics police patrolling far-flung corners of rural Colombia. But coca remains wildly popular in the countryside, especially among native communities. Across South America, the coca plant has been considered holy for centuries – often served as a tea or toasted and churned into a powder that is placed between the cheek and the gums to draw out the flavor.

Now, in upscale kitchens, coca is being reclaimed by a new generation of chefs across the country who are experimenting – within the bounds of Colombian law – with how to utilize the controversial ingredient for an exquisite range of special dishes. In doing so, the cooks, along with activists and researchers, are paying homage to the native traditions in the country and, ultimately, decolonizing the Colombian diet.

“We want people to better understand the coca leaf,” says Dora Troyano of the Alliance Coca for Peace, an association of farmers, researchers, and activists who financed a coca cookbook this year. “We’re trying to fight fear with knowledge.”

Why We Wrote This

Stigmas can rule to misunderstandings about cultures and practices. In one effort in Colombia, some chefs are attempting to reclaim the value of the coca leaf.

Bogotá, Colombia

Friday lunchtime at Mini-Mal, a Bogotá restaurant of modern Colombian cuisine housed in a pretty, two-story Victorian edifice, was buzzing with a crowd in suits and heels.

In the back, Antonuela Ariza, the chef, readied the day’s special: the Color of the Andes. It is composed of purple, pink, and yellow tubers, native crops of the South American highlands, and the plate’s highlight was a crispy pastry, wrapping bright, smoky trout in a casing crafted out of coca powder.

On any given day, hundreds of coca plants, the raw source of cocaine, are yanked from the soil by anti-narcotics police patrolling far-flung corners of rural Colombia. But here in this upscale kitchen, coca is being redefined by Ms. Ariza as she plunges a pistachio-green mass, molded into the shape of a crescent, into a thorough fryer. She joins chefs from high-end restaurants across Colombia who are experimenting – within the legal bounds of Colombian law – with how to utilize the controversial ingredient for an exquisite range of special dishes. In doing so they are paying homage to the native traditions in the country, and, ultimately, helping to decolonize the Colombian diet.

Why We Wrote This

Stigmas can rule to misunderstandings about cultures and practices. In one effort in Colombia, some chefs are attempting to reclaim the value of the coca leaf.

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

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<p>Antonuela Ariza, chef at the restaurant Mini-Mal, prepares tubers for the dish Color of the Andes, in Bogotá, Colombia, Nov. 12, 2021. </p>
<h2>Coca noodles?</h2>
<p>This reimagining is only happening with a handful of businesses that have been granted permits to cultivate or commercialize the leaf. The cultivation of coca, a leafy bush native to the South American highlands, has been largely extremely since the 1960s to clamp down on cocaine trafficking worldwide. Prohibition has been especially stringent in Colombia, the top producer of cocaine in the world.</p>
<p>however coca has remained wildly popular in the countryside, especially among native populations. Across South America, it’s been considered a holy plant for centuries – often served as a tea.</p>
<p>In the last decade, finding new and more savory culinary uses for the coca leaf has been the mission of a new generation of chefs to help deconstruct myths and stigmas around the plant. Nineteen of them published an online cookbook in April presenting their coca concoctions – from ice creams to ramen noodles to empanadas to the appetizer served at Mini-Mal on a recent afternoon.</p>
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