In Colombian kitchens you take some coke again?
Will coca flour become a spice like salt or paprika? Colombian chef Rodrigo Pazos didn’t wait long to incorporate coca powder into some of his recipes. A daring bet in a country where the plant is associated with drug trafficking and violence.
With tattooed arms and thick glasses on his nose, the cook spreads the green powder obtained from the coca leaf onto a corn cake. This famous leaf is used to make cocaine, the drug that has fueled armed conflict in Colombia for decades. The country is the world’s leading producer.
Before becoming a coveted object of drug traffickers, the coca leaf was an ancestral product for indigenous communities, who used it particularly as a fuel during their long workdays.
Rodrigo Pazos accompanies this coca-soaked biscuit with tuna tartare in sauce, rosemary ash and coconut rice. In small amounts, the powder theoretically has no psychotropic effect.
The 34-year-old chef isn’t the only one to use coca powder in his recipes. Fads, aesthetic research or new flavors, some of the greatest chefs in Colombia also get involved.
From his ovens, Rodrigo Pazos thus freed himself from the heavy stigmata of the plant. “As a chef, it’s a challenge first to put it on a menu” and “then to be accepted by the public,” he explains. His dish is offered for around 7.70 euros.
– bitterness –
After several failed attempts, he managed to find a recipe that combines the flavors of the Pacific and the Caribbean.
The coca leaf actually grows on both coasts of the country, as well as in 24 of Colombia’s 34 departments.
The few cooks who have taken the plunge continue to experiment to explore the bitterness that coca flour brings to their recipes.
Rodrigo Pazos tried everything. “Bake in the oven”, “dilute” or even mix with eggs. But he eventually chose to incorporate it as such into his dishes.
Others add it to sauces or cocktails. In 2019, an initiative was even launched to bring renowned chefs together around this new ingredient.
It is the indigenous communities who, with government approval, harvest the coca leaf in Lerma, a violence-stricken community in southwestern Colombia.
The recipes are even compiled on retococa.org, a website named after the initiative. However, the use of coca in cooking remains utterly anecdotal compared to the explosion of crops used to make cocaine.
According to the latest UN census, 142,000 hectares of coca are planted across the country.
Chief Pazos himself was born in Popayán, a town near Lerma, in an area controlled by cartels and armed groups.
For him, the fact that there is coca in the ovens shows that there is an alternative to drug production.
The cook believes that a way away from illegality is possible for coca farmers. “Grow coca, okay. But for chefs to work it into their recipes and incorporate it into their menus,” he argues.
Coca flour is rich in iron, phosphorus and calcium. It is also sold in Bogota markets and online for around nine euros per 250 gram pack.
– “A taboo” –
In the kitchen of a luxury restaurant in Bogota, Jeferson Garcia puts a creamy icing made from coca powder into a piping bag. He then adds the cream to a coconut-based cake.
With recipes like this, he wants to ensure that cola “is no longer taboo.”
At his side, Yulián Téllez prepares Beef Traber Gelatine, a typical confectionery from the eastern plains of Colombia. This is where Yulián Téllez grew up, surrounded by guerrillas and paramilitaries.
The cook adds the coca powder to the sticky mixture before topping everything with pork belly.
As he kneads the dough, he remembers the nights in his village of Guamal.
He had to “sleep under the dining table with pillows” because his family lived “near the police station,” which was regularly attacked by rebels with grenades.
Some from his village are surprised. “How dare he” cook cola dishes? He does not recover and continues to use coca flour in his restaurant.
“A lot of chefs recognize its qualities and we realize that we can make a lot of very interesting dishes,” he argues.
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