The coca plant has long gotten a bad rap thanks to the fact that cocaine is produced from its leaves. But before coca’s history was corrupted by that illegal white powder, it spent thousands of years known as a miracle crop with incredible nutritional properties. And now, increasingly, it’s becoming an essential part of the cuisine in countries throughout South America.
The presence of the coca leaf may be what initially allowed ancient people in modern day Peru and Bolivia to seek out, survive and ultimately build some of the first, most-developed civilizations in the world in the Andes mountains. In modern day La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, visitors are instructed to chew coca leaves or sip coca leaf tea all day long in order to combat the effects of altitude sickness.
Beyond its unparalleled ability to oxygenate blood, coca plants are naturally higher in protein, iron, Vitamins A & B, riboflavin, phosphorus and calcium than 50 other vegetables on the INCAP Food Composition Table – the international food nutritional database.
Sipping coca leaf tea or chewing leaves also results in a caffeine-like energy uptick, without the jittery rush we associate with coffee. The oldest man ever recorded, Carmelo Flores Laura, credited his uncanny age to his daily, nonstop coca leaf chewing. He lived to be 123 years old.
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It’s also one of the rare, scientifically-proven hangover cures. Chewing coca leaves before a night of drinking prevents the body from absorbing excessive amounts of alcohol. And it’s a topical pain and arthritis reliever, and a powerful treatment for symptoms associated with PMS. Oh, and it can be exceptionally helpful in eye surgeries, as it prevents patients from flinching.
Coca leaf tea and leaf-chewing are amateur hour compared to some of the ways this versatile plant is being used in modern kitchens. After being ground into a flour called harina, it can be transformed into breads, cookies called alfajores, or batters for frying meat and vegetables. When combined with cocoa beans, coca becomes an essential part of the special medicinal form of chocolate called Kuka Xoco, which radically elevates both crops’ beneficial qualities.
Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru uses coca leaves in its bread, which is served with herb butter. (Personal note: I’ve tried it, and it was amazing.) Nearby Astrid y Gastón is known for a frozen, coca-encrusted salad, earning the restaurant a frequent spot on lists of the world’s top restaurants.
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Nasa Tul Coca Café in Bogotá whips up chocolate chip-coca cookies, which it serves alongside coca-infused beer and wine. And speaking of hooch, Santiago cocktail bar Chipe Libre shakes up coca sours from 60 different pisco varieties behind the bar.
Unfortunately, despite the significant health benefits proven to exist within the leaf, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security maintains a sweeping ban on coca leaves entering the country.
Our chefs can’t cook with coca, our scientists and doctors can’t research and develop medicines made with it, and you certainly can’t bring any back home with you to brew tea with. In 2011, Slate even went so far as to call coca “the next health food craze that won’t be.”
Coca may be a powerful superfood, but cocaine isolated from the leaf remains one of the most addictive substances created by man. We won’t be seeing this superfood stateside anytime soon.