Coca Leaves Are Proving Addictive To Bolivian Chefs

Head to a local market in Bolivia, and the first thing you're likely to notice is a smell, damp and vegetal, emanating from huge bushels of dried green leaves that are being sold for a few bucks a pound. These leaves are coca, and to Bolivians they're far more than just the raw material used to make cocaine. Andean peoples have chewed or brewed the leaf for thousands of years, using it to increase stamina, aid digestion, and combat altitude sickness. More recently, it's become a gourmet ingredient in the nation's administrative capital of La Paz, a city that has in recent years been transformed from a culinary backwater to an unexpected darling of the global eaterati.

Much of that transformation has taken place in the Zona Sur, the posh section of the world's highest capital city (12,000 feet in altitude). In this part of town, you'll find embassies and coffee shops and a dense cluster of gourmet restaurants—a burgeoning culinary scene anchored by Gustu, the much-lauded fine dining palace started four years ago by Noma co-founder Claus Meyer. This year, Gustu ranked number 14 on the San Pellegrino list of the best restaurants in Latin America.

Gustu's kitchen explores the wild diversity of Bolivia's many microclimates, working with everything from Amazonian fruits to the herbs of the Altiplano. The restaurant has also been on the forefront of exploring new potential uses for coca, a quintessentially Bolivian crop viewed as medicine on its home soil—and misconstrued as a drug pretty much everywhere else.

Indigenous to the wet eastern slopes of the Andes from Colombia southward, coca helps the body absorb calcium, vitamins, and—critically here in the mountains—oxygen. Steeped in hot water, it makes a mild herbal tea, which Bolivians will drink as a digestive aid or to alleviate altitude sickness. It's not uncommon for those who work long, grueling hours (cab drivers or miners, say) to pack wads of coca leaves the size of golf balls into their cheeks, along with any alkaline ingredient—lime and ash are common—to battle fatigue and hunger. Chewed this way, coca numbs the gums and leaves you more alert, like a cup of coffee without the jitters, or a Coca-Cola without the post-sugar-rush crash.

Mauricio López, head chef at Gustu, grew up in the Zona Sur. He says while no one in his family ever chewed coca, "As a kid, I drank maté de coca all the time." Coca's purpose, however, was purely medicinal, and back then it was never sought out for its flavor. "Now," López says, "there's a lot more interest in experimenting with alternative uses."

On the night I ate at Gustu, López served a lime-green bauble of coca brioche and a rich, coca-infused butter. The bread was mildly woody, the butter terrestrial and warm—imagine if a subtropical forest could take the form of cream. At Gustu, López says, coca's been used in cocktails, or dehydrated and powdered and mixed with flour to make desserts like coca alfajores (the macaron's Latin American cousin). "There's a notion outside the country that coca's a drug," he says, "but for us it's part of our history."

Part of history, yes, but not of the local cuisine. Early culinary uses of coca were directed largely at Western backpackers who were titillated by the idea of legally ingesting the stuff that makes cocaine. For a decade now, restaurants catering to travelers have used coca in juices and baked goods, while the Museo De La Coca in La Paz's colonial center has stocked its shelves with coca-flavored cakes and liquors. According to Daniel Lonsdale, who produces specialty gins flavored with Andean and Amazonian botanicals under the label La República, "Those coca alcohols were sick"—as in vile. "People get caught in the moment and take it home, but I don't think any Bolivian would drink that stuff," he adds. For Sdenka Silva Villón, co-founder of the museum, coca products were an important part of "explaining the difference between coca and cocaine, which is like the difference between grapes and wine"—a difference you would never have to explain to a Bolivian.

Cocaine has been popular in the West since it was first synthesized in the 19th century, and it was first made comestible in 1863 in the form of Vin Mariani, a cocaine-infused Bordeaux. Shortly after, Coca-Cola was introduced in the U.S., marketed as a health tonic and a non-alcoholic version of Vin Mariani. In 1961, a United Nations treaty made exporting the leaf itself illegal. It's still illegal for nations who were party to that treaty to import or export coca leaf, though a loophole allows the Stepan chemical company to bring large quantities into the U.S. to produce coca extract for Coca-Cola. For more than a half century now, cocaine—and by association, the coca leaf—has been taboo.

Led largely by American anti-narcotic efforts, Bolivia embarked on a coca eradication campaign in the late 1980s, one met by heavy, often violent resistance from farmers known as cocaleros. When Evo Morales, the former leader of a coca grower's union, was elected Bolivia's first indigenous president in 2005, he made re-normalizing coca farming an important part of his platform, and he upped the working limit to 20,000 legal hectares.

America's unforgiving—and immaterial, after Morales expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008—stance on the leaf aside, coca has never ceased to be essential and, frankly, mundane in Bolivia. Turning the leaf into cocaine is a long and laborious process, one that begins on coca farms but typically ends in high-tech labs in Colombia. Though there are certainly illegal growers in Bolivia producing coca paste, and even some processing it into the final powdered substance, for most Bolivians, coca is just coca.

"Here we use coca for our health," Chef López told me when we met at Gustu. While chefs in Colorado and California are busting taboos by cooking with psychoactive marijuana, cooking with coca in Bolivia is more like finding a culinary application for Vicks VapoRub.

López says that cooking with coca "started with curiosity," and so far it's yielded brilliant green pastas and raviolis made from the same coca flour that goes into Gustu's brioche. Silva Villón says the coca cakes at the museum gift shop, baked with amaranth and quinoa, have become as popular with Bolivians as with tourists, as have the coca candies created by her son to replicate the mouth-numbing, vitality-increasing effects of chewing coca.

At the newly opened fine-dining restaurant Ona at the slick Atix Hotel, beef is served with a citrus-coca sauce, while Lonsdale's company, Master Blends, is working on a new recipe for an improved coca-flavored liqueur called Cocalero to replace all the bad novelty stuff. In most cases, the tingly quality associated with chewing disappears (the candies, made with higher concentrations of coca, are the exception). Cooking with coca is about extracting the astringent flavor of Bolivia's shared cultural memory, the woody, musty notes singularly tied to this remote corner of the world.

Though much of this innovation is concentrated in the Zona Sur, one of the cleverest coca dishes I tasted was served to me in El Alto, La Paz's sprawling satellite city. Most of the million or so people who live there, some 3,000 feet higher than the Zona Sur, arrived as immigrants from the rural high plains in the last 30 years. Many still chew or drink coca every day. Beyond that, cooking here mostly hews closely to the region's meat- and carb-heavy traditions.

On my last day in town, I met Ofelia Callisaya Quispe, a student at El Modelo Manq'a, a culinary school founded by Meyer in 2014 to serve the city's at-risk youth. At the bustling edge of El Alto's immense Sunday market, Ofelia handed me a Tupperware container of coca-based cupcakes filled with mentholated jelly, a witty reference to the old tradition of chewing coca leaves with the alkaline ash of burnt mint leaves. She'd brought extras for me to take to the airport early the next morning. "A little energy for the journey home," she said.

Eating that first cupcake—sweet and earthy, and light as the breathless air in El Alto—I was reminded of something I'd heard in variations from people across the country, from farmers in the plains to fishermen in the Amazon: "With coca," they said, "anything is possible."