A few weeks ago, at a high school in Westchester County, New York, five Latinx members of the staff, including me, were planning a Christmas potluck feast in the faculty lounge.
Everyone shouted out dish suggestions as the group’s youngest Dominican teacher, Emily Fernandez, scratched them down on a sheet of paper: pernil, tamales, buñuelos. Flor Ruiz, a teacher from Colombia, added excitedly, “Yo voy a hacer arroz con Coca-Cola.” Emily stopped writing and looked up. “It is rice cooked in Coke with raisins,” said Ruiz. “It is served in Colombia, especially around the holidays and on Nochebuena.” Jimmy Calero, the school’s vending machine stocker who grew up in the Colombian city of Cali, chimed in to back her up. “Claro que sí! They do that all over the coast,” he said.
I’d been to a Noche Buena party once at my grandmother’s in Colombia. I remember the figs and papaya in syrup, the Rica-brand cold meats with plum sauce, the aguardiente poured into paper shot glasses, and the music and dancing until Niño Dios arrived at midnight. And while I do not remember any rice cooked in Coke, the idea of it as a Colombian holiday classic does not surprise me.
It’s impossible to overstate how ubiquitous Coca-Cola is throughout Colombia. The sight of Colombian kids guzzling cold Cokes on hot days is so common here that children are often referred to as “Coca-Colos.” When I used to visit my father’s hometown — situated in a valley of the Andes Mountains where you still have to collect rainwater on the roof for showers and boil raw milk — my cousins and I could always rely on a limitless supply of glass bottles of Coke in crates next to the refrigerator, or inside the fridge next to not much else.
I only remember one visit when the bottles weren’t there. Armed guerillas, who controlled a vast territory during Colombia’s roughly 60 years of civil war that began in 1964, had halted Coke delivery trucks into the relatively peaceful town over several months. It felt like a sad, dry wave of temperance had swept over the place.
In Colombia — and for many Colombian immigrants living in the U.S., like Ruiz — a house doesn’t feel like a home without Coke. Of course, the reason why Coke became so entrenched in Colombian culture and cuisine isn’t quite so heartening. Since its founding in 1892, Coke has used coca leaves from the region comprising Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia in its production, and they still do (though now from a single source in Peru). Coca is not cocaine, though the leaves do contain an alkaloid that is used in the production of cocaine, and the plant has been used ceremonially, medicinally, and culinarily in Colombia by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people for centuries. Even my grandmother had a coca plant in her backyard that she would pluck from when making teas.
But today, the only two companies that can legally cultivate, import, and profit from this important pre-Hispanic plant are American: Coca-Cola itself and the Stepan Company in Maywood, New Jersey. (Coke contracts Stepan to extract non-psychoactive juice to be used in their “natural flavoring.”) Once the extract is imported to the U.S. and made into Coke concentrate, it is then exported back to Latin America (and to plants worldwide) for bottling, and today you’ll find bottling plants in just about every corner of Colombia, from big cities to small Amazonian villages. Those factories provide a huge number of jobs, but workers have long struggled to get fair wages. When the guerillas stopped Coke trucks from traveling to my father’s hometown roughly 20 years ago, it was because they suspected that Coke was complicit in the murders of several local union leaders.
The fierce production of the soft drink can also be a drain on natural resources. At one plant in Tocancipá, union leaders said the operation was consuming 68.5 percent of the municipal water supply. That deficit, in turn, helps drive demand for Coke. In 1999 Coca-Cola spokesperson Pablo Largacha told the Washington Post, “Per capita consumption is much higher in cities where the drinking water isn’t of good quality.” He was talking about Leticia, Colombia, a town in the Amazon that, at the time, had one of the country’s highest per-capita Coke consumption rates.
But Coke’s use in Colombian cooking isn’t just out of necessity. It has real culinary value, too — a unique package of sweetness and acidity that comes in handy in the kitchen, especially when making a sweet, festive holiday pilaf. And Ruiz’s arroz con Coca-Cola isn’t the only Colombian dish made with Coke. There’s also arroz árabe (or arroz moro), so named because the rice is cooked along with toasted thin noodles and raisins, as it’s done in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, to name a few — though the addition of Coke is a Latin twist. And according to Ruiz and her friends, cooks in Colombian coastal towns often add the beverage to their coconut rice.
With each splash of Coke into the pot, Colombian cooks are repurposing and redefining the cola and its influence. As Anne E. McBride wrote in Gastronomica in 2005, when people cook with Coke and work it into their culture’s traditional dishes, the drink suddenly becomes a “component of the local food culture and not just a symbol of international economic invasion.” Whether she knows it or not, by making her dish for our school’s lunch club, Ruiz is reclaiming what has been extracted and stolen from her homeland for more than a century. Though mostly, she wants to cook up some good holiday cheer.
Rather than wait for the potluck, I decided to try to make arroz con Coca-Cola myself last week. None of my Colombia-based aunts and uncles could tell me much about the dish’s history or preparation, but one of Ruiz’s friends, Lilliana Mejia, was generous enough to share her recipe. Following her instructions, I rinsed the rice and fried it in oil with garlic and onion. I added a mixture of liquid — half water, half Coke — about twice the volume of liquid to rice, as is usually the case. I stared down, stirring, as the Coke fizzled out, flattened, and disappeared into each grain. Then I lowered the heat, dropped a handful of raisins on top of the rice, and slapped the lid on the pot. Fifteen minutes later, all that was left was a steamy, aromatic, slightly sweet rice. The Coke had been completely absorbed by the heap of now-plump, fluffy grains; what was left was a pot of pure Colombia.