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The intense green of the mambe ice cream from Lengua de Mariposa, an ice cream shop in Cali, Colombia, immediately connects with the leaf that gives it life, the coca leaf. Perhaps it is the main ingredient of one of the 160 flavors created by chef Evelin Potes, dedicated to highlighting local products in her ice cream preparations, with other innovative ones such as sancocho, guayabito and salpicón.

She is not the only one to have the flavor. Antonuela Ariza from Sierra Nevada makes this ice cream more than 6 years ago such as other chefs like Alejandro Gutiérres from Salvo Patri or Andrews Arrieta from de Açaí in Bogotá who also includes it in his deserts. Motivated to look at the products of these territories, to discover how they have been used and to include their nutritional and organoleptic properties in urban diets, the cooks have contacted indigenous and peasant communities of the Amazon, Putumayo and Cauca, to learn from them and share with their diners their ways of using the ingredient.

Recipes prepared by the chefs invited to the Coca Challenge two, held in July 2022.

It was precisely because of the opportunity that the kitchen represents and knowing the work of the Alianza Coca para la Paz, whose goal is “to advance a path to regulate the uses of the coca leaf for research purposes in the development of potential food, medicinal and agricultural products,” that the Open Society Foundations joined the project. This way in 2019 the first edition of Coca Challenge took place in the Cauca region. More than 20 Colombian chefs traveled to the peasant community Lerma in Cauca, to live an experience with growers and local leaders, to learn about the bakery and pastry products that some families make from the coca leaf and the flour obtained from it.

Throughout history, the leaf has had more medicinal and ritual uses than food, however, in Colombia there are initiatives such as Coca Nasa, founded more than 20 years ago by indigenous leader Fabiola Piñacué, from the community of Calderas, Cauca. Its portfolio includes alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, coca flour and mambe, among others. Hayu Guas de Lerma’s brand focuses on flour and bakery products. Both have faced many legal difficulties to operate and sell.

Erin Rose, Bar Manager of Takami Group, making cocktails with coca.

After the field visit each of the guests of the Coca Challenge created a preparation with the coca leaf or its flour. This recepies were gatheres in the text La hoja de coca en la gastronomía colombiana, with an online and printed version. Some of the asistents incorporated this dishes into their restaurants with the purpose of “contribute to the construction and revaluation of the significance of the coca plant in the country and in the world.” The Coca Challenge had a break in 2020 and 2021, and in 2022 it returned with the participation of more than 40 guests including chefs, journalists, artists and other opinion leaders.

Colombian chefs Leonor Espinosa and Andrews Arrieta during their visit to the Coca Route of Lerma, in the town of Bolivar, Cauca in southern Colombia.

Diego García, manager of the Open Society’s Drug Policy Program for Latin America, explains that they are interested in generating a debate on an issue that has been political for Colombia, “we are looking for allied sectors such as the kitchen, as a tool to demonstrate that we have been wrong for more than 40 years on this issue”. The arrival of the new president Gustavo Petro adds interest to the issue, as he has raised the importance of a change in the approach to drug policy in the world, considering that it has failed.

Recipes prepared by the chefs invited to the Coca Challenge two, held in July 2022.

The context is not yet ideal for the legalization of drugs, however, the director of Colombia’s National Taxes and Customs, Luis Carlos Reyes, recently expressed that cocaine should be legalized and also be taxed, something questioned by many. Even progressive views, such as that of Alianza Verde Senator Ariel Ávila, reminds us that this is a good idea on paper, that couldn’t be executed and that Colombia is not the country that should promote it.

Politics aside, and separating coca from cocaine, continuing to include the leaf in the kitchen, opening a path that takes away space from the illicit business, however small the former may be compared to the latter, is a gamble that makes more and more sense. Garcia insists on the importance of achieving a legal framework that allows a wider exploration and, eventually, an industrialization of the leaf for other purposes than cocaine. This legal framework does not exist in Colombia, there are grey areas that allow indigenous peoples to grow coca for their own consumption and to issue licenses for the commercialization of their products; but other communities, which also have traditional uses, have no legal protection. The Open Society seeks to include these communities in the regulation and to promote an industry that reaches out to restaurants. Meanwhile cook like Evelin Potes are still doing their work. At Lengua de Mariposa we work to rescue traditions, preserving them frozen and turning them into ice cream. We have done this with sancocho and marranitas vallunas, with amazonian fruits and other products. Then I connected with traditional medicine such as yagé, ayahuasca and mambe, and I discovered a very nice virtue. My grandmother always had a coca plant, and if we had a stomach ache she would prepare a drink with its leaves; now with the ice cream shop I realized how magnificent the mambe is, and its connection with the speech. Researching I discovered that I could make it in ice cream, made with almond milk, because it does not have much compatibility with cow’s milk, plus the almond notes go well with it. My bet as a cook was to launch myself with the flavor of the mambe exposed, not to cover it up. I always wanted it to have that strong flavor”.

Recipes prepared by the chefs invited to the Coca Challenge two, held in July 2022.

IG: @clauslagartija Photos: Miguel Varona

Claudia Arias
Guest author

Journalist, Colombia

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