Is coca flour becoming a condiment like salt or paprika? Colombian chef Rodrigo Pazos didn’t wait 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.
Tattooed arms and thick glasses on his nose, the cook spreads the green powder produced from the coca leaf on a corn cake. It is this famous leaf from which cocaine is produced, the drug that has fueled the armed conflict in Colombia for decades. The country is the world’s leading producer.
Before becoming the coveted object of drug traffickers, the coca leaf was an ancestral product for indigenous communities who used it in particular as an energizer during their long working days.
Rodrigo Pazos accompanies this coca-soaked biscuit with a tuna tartare in sauce, rosemary ashes and coconut rice. In small quantities, the powder theoretically has no psychotropic effect.
The 34-year-old chef is not the only one to use coca powder in his recipes. Fad, aesthetic research or new flavors, some of Colombia’s greatest cooks are also getting into it.
From his stoves, Rodrigo Pazos thus freed himself from the heavy stigmata of the plant. “It’s first of all a challenge as a cook to include it in a menu” and “then to have it accepted by the public”, he explains. His dish is offered at around 7.70 euros.
After several failed attempts, he managed to find a recipe that combines the flavors of the Pacific and the Caribbean. The coca leaf indeed grows on both coasts of the country, as well as in 24 of the 34 departments of Colombia.
The few chefs who have taken the plunge continue their experiments to explore the bitterness that coca flour brings to their recipes.
Rodrigo Pazos has tried everything. “Baking it in the oven”, “diluting it” or even mixing it with eggs. But he finally opted to incorporate it as such in his dishes.
Others add it to sauces or cocktails. An initiative was even born in 2019 to bring together renowned chefs around this new ingredient.
It is the indigenous communities that harvest the coca leaf with the authorization of the government in Lerma, a municipality in southwestern Colombia plagued by violence.
The recipes are even compiled on the retococa.org site, named after the initiative. The use of coca in the kitchen, however, remains completely anecdotal compared to the explosion of crops to produce cocaine. According to the last count of the UN, there would be 142,000 hectares of coca planted throughout the country.
Chief Pazos himself was born in Popayán, a locality near Lerma, in an area under the control of cartels and armed groups.
For him, that coca is found in the stoves shows that there is an alternative to drug production. A path is possible far from illegality for coca growers, wants to believe the cook. “Grow coca, okay. But so that cooks can work it into their recipes and integrate it into their menus,” he pleads.
Coca flour is rich in iron, phosphorus and calcium. It is also sold in the markets of Bogota and on the internet for around nine euros per 250 gram packet.
In the kitchens of a luxurious restaurant in Bogota, Jeferson Garcia introduces a smooth cream made from coca powder into a piping bag. He then adds the cream to a coconut-based cake.
With recipes like this, he hopes to ensure that coke “is no longer a taboo”.
At his side, Yulián Téllez prepares beef trotter gelatin, a typical confectionery from the eastern plains of Colombia. This is where Yulián Téllez grew up, between guerrillas and paramilitaries.
The cook adds the coca powder to the sticky mixture before covering everything with pork belly. While kneading the dough, he remembers the nights in his village of Guamal. He had to “sleep under the dining room table with cushions” because his family lived “near the police station”, regularly attacked with grenades by the rebels.
From his village, some wonder. “How dare he” cook coke dishes? He does not recover and continues to use coca flour in his restaurant.
“Many cooks are realizing its properties and we realize that we can prepare a lot of very interesting dishes,” he argues. (AFP)