South America is full of gastronomical treats and cultural treasures, and you can experience both in a single cup of coca tea. Arriving in Colonial Quito I look around our accommodation and find a generous supply of Coca tea in tea bag form. Ah, I have heard about this controversial drink. Also called mate de coca, it is indigenous to the Andes Mountains of South America.
What is coca tea? At its most basic, the drink follows a simple formula: pour hot water over dried coca leaves, leaving the leaves in the cup. Thanks to commercialization the tea is now found in processed tea bags sold in supermarkets across the country. Both forms result in a natural taste similar to green tea.
The coca plant contains alkaloids similar to those found in caffeine, resulting in an energy boost felt most strongly when consumed directly. Given that Quito is at 2850 metres, we abandon coffee and replace our drink of choice to coca tea and who know whether it helped or not, but it was a pleasant drink.
Cultivation of coca leaves dates back 4,000 years, long before the Incas were about. Ancient Andean cultures primarily chewed the leaves (rather than brewing them) to alleviate altitude sickness and to act as a stimulant, which allowed them to work harder and longer.
Our worries over illegality and whether we will get “high” are quickly allayed and we use copious amounts during our stay in South America. We attempt to chew it on our trek of the Inca Trail, however we are left with a bad taste literally, the coca leaf to chew is a lot different to the tea!
So the gastronomical value is assured, but where’s the culture?
Perhaps in the drink’s importance and prevalence in daily life and that the coca leaf became sacred among the Ancient Andean cultures. The Incas, in particular, treasured this “divine plant” and used it in rituals and religious ceremonies. They began large-scale coca cultivation but the practice was curtailed by the arrival of the Spanish, who decried coca consumption as “an agent of idolatry and sorcery.”
This anti-coca position was partially reversed when the conquerors of the Incan Empire realized the benefits of allowing their “laborers” to chew coca to increase work performance, and the ruling class ended up taxing the trade of coca rather than completely outlawing it.
Today, coca is still chewed in indigenous cultures, although the tea form is much more prevalent. A steaming cup is presented to tourists upon arrival in most high altitude city hotels, a welcoming cultural gesture and way to keep guests from zonking out due to the city’s soaring altitude.
Demonized due to it distant relation to cocaine, which also originates from the coca plant, many countries consider consumption of any part of the plant illegal, so it pays not to pack it in your luggage!
Controversy aside, coca tea is a quaint drink that encompasses South America’s unique environment, culture, and history.
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