Why Are Bolivian Chefs Going Crazy For Coca Leaves?

Cooking with marijuana has long been the inspiration for culinary clubs and cookbooks in the United States, but cooking with another taboo green leaf is picking up speed in Bolivia.

Coca leaves are what Coca-Cola is named after, and as you may know, they're the raw material from which cocaine is derived. According to A.V. Club, the people of the Bolivian Andean mountains have brewed tea and chewed the leaf for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. Recently, chefs in the city of La Paz have integrated the leaf into foods such as bread, pasta, butter, cupcakes and sauces. Even cocktails are getting the coca treatment. (Related: Bolivian Food Primer.)

Cooking with coca leaves creates earthy green-hued foods, not unlike matcha, that have been seen at many upscale restaurants, like Gustu, Claus Meyer's Bolivia-based project. According to A.V. Club, the coca leaf imparts a musty but pleasant woody taste, something chefs in La Paz are working to extract when cooking with it. While it's viewed as a drug in many parts of the world outside of Bolivia, the leaf actually has many healthful properties, including the ability to help the body absorb vitamins, calcium and oxygen. Especially important to those who live in the Andes, coca leaf tea also helps alleviate altitude-related sicknesses.