An accidental encounter
The first visit was sheer accident – a misreading of the placard announcing the daily specials. As a nonnative speaker, the word coca was misread as coco (coconut). Believing it to be a restaurant specializing in the food of the Caribbean region of Colombia, our party was surprised to encounter something entirely different.
Instead of being greeted with the aroma of coconut rice, visitors are greeted by small native figurines, with a bowl of coca leaves. A closer look at the restaurant signage showed a member of a native Colombian (Andean) tribe superimposed with a sheave of leaves.
Embajada de la what?
The leaves are from the famed (or infamous) coca plant which has become a controversial symbol in much of the world due to the devastating effects of narco-trafficking in this part of the world. Coca leaves have become synonymous with cocaine. However, the proprietors of this restaurant are doing their best to change this. Along with Evo Morales, the President of the Plurinational state of Bolivia, and traditional coca growers, the owners have adopted the slogan, “Coca no es cocaina” or Coca is not cocaine.
Coca is not cocaine
To the Andean peoples, coca is part of a rich heritage of natural medicines and cuisine. The owners fear that the on-going “war on drugs” is a direct attack on part of their heritage. They are careful to distinguish the coca leaves in their natural state from the highly processed forms of coca like cocaine and crack which have wrought havoc, and brought suffering to people all over the world.
Colombia has been ground zero for much of the destruction caused by an unquenchable thirst for cocaine in the United States and other parts of the world. Cocaine has brought a level of violence that is now an inescapable part of life and recent history of this beautiful, vibrant country.
Cocaine has played a large role in the on-going war, large-scale murder and forced displacement to multiple regions of Colombia. Narco-trafficking has directly fueled the efforts of paramilitaries such as FARC and has given one of it's former local criminals, (Pablo Escobar) international infamy and a permanent place in Colombian history despite his death 20 years ago.
While the restaurant carefully distinguishes between the two: coca and cocaine, I am not sure I am able to. The presence of the bowl at the front entrance it just part of what seems a calculated effort to capitalize on this infamy.
Andean people, art and the coca museum
Further into the restaurant, visitors are greeted to an array of native artwork, along with music played a native artist alongside a large television projecting images of native peoples. But coca is an all-present entity. In each segment of the establishment, there is a large display touting products made from the coca leaf; aromatic teas, packaged leaves and touristy t-shirts. Other artisan craft work is also offered for sale, but coca is the star of the show. Then of course, there is the main stage for the coca leaf; the Coca Museum.
Inside the museum, a bowl of loose coca leaves sits on a small table surrounded by benches, inviting visitors to sample the leaves. Multiple posters tout the benefits of coca leaves and well as the nutritional qualities of the leaves themselves.
A large display of other medicinal plants and their uses is framed by several Bolivian flags, and a separate poster shows a smiling Evo Morales. It is easy to forget that this is, in fact, a restaurant until the aromas from the kitchen waft over, along with muffled conversation and laughter as the lunchtime crowd filters in.
Food of the Andean peoples
As we are seated at small wooden tables with low stools, we are served the first item of a fixed lunch menu special, coca tea. My companion, A. J, a native Bogota resident offers to sample the leaves and coca-infused items during our visit.
Coca tea is often touted in mountainous communities as a 'natural' treatment for altitude sickness. At over 8,000 feet in elevation, Bogota certainly qualifies. The tea has a bitter, dirt-infused taste and no immediately reported effects. The next item on the menu is an appetizer, a small bowl of warmed Peruvian rice. The large rice has the texture and taste of cooked but unpopped popcorn kernels. This is quickly followed by a hot brothy soup, with small snippets of potatoes and spices. While the soup is unimpressive in appearance, the taste is savory, and the warmth is a balm against the cool ambient temperatures of Bogota*.
The main entree is strips of pork bathed in a savory tomato sauce with bell peppers, onions and assorted spices. It is accompanied by a coca leaf garnish, a small green flag on a small mountain of white rice.
Lastly, a delicate bowl of rice pudding is brought to finish the meal. The pudding has a cardamon like flavor and an almost eastern taste.
The meal itself is delicious, and despite portions much smaller than what most Americans are used to, very filling. The price is very fair; only twelve dollars for the entire lunch for both of us.
Chewing a coca leaf
Later, as we are leaving, A. J. confesses that after chewing several leaves, her tongue feels a bit numb but denies any other effects. I am not sure if tongue numbing is good advertisement for a restaurant, so I will leave that to my fellow travelers.
How to find Embajada de la Coca
Embajada de la Coca is located in the fashionable and upscale Barrio Chico, near Parque 93.
Embajada de la Coca
Carrera 13 # 94 - 26
The restaurant is on the second floor of a small white commercial building housing several other restaurants and businesses. The restaurant/ museum is open daily (Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 9 pm) and closes early on Sundays and local holidays (9 am to 6 pm.) The restaurant offers live music daily with demonstrations of traditional Andean dances on special occasions. Traditional handicrafts, natural medicines and other items are also available for sale. During the week, the lunch hour is busy with businessmen and other local residents.
*The majority of facilities in Bogota do not have heating or air conditioning, as Bogota is considered to have a very moderate and pleasant “Autumn-like” climate.
Attempts to contact the owner for an interview were unanswered. Restaurant staff provided much of the information about Embajada de la Coca. The website, www.embajadadelacoca.com was not working at the time of article publication.
Neither the writer, nor Examiner.com endorse or recommend any kind of drug ingestion including coca leaf sampling. Use of these substances can cause serious adverse health effects including addiction, tooth loss (leaf chewing), heart attacks and sudden death. It also promotes violence in the regions where coca leaves are grown, processed and trafficked.