On small peasant farms across Colombia, panela, or unrefined whole cane sugar, is grown, picked and processed entirely by hand. It constitutes the basic economy for hundreds of municipalities, and is second only to coffee in the number of people engaged in its production.
Yet in the country’s central Cundinamarca region, between Bogotá and Medellín, it was not until the summer of 2017 that panela became more than a subsistence crop, and displaced family farmers — mostly women — began to profit from it. The change? Their panela had become part of an attractively packaged, refreshing lemon-accented soda called Quamba, which is sold in upscale restaurants in Bogotá and other big Colombian cities.
For the growers, Quamba represents their ticket back to normalcy after displacement by one of the longest armed conflicts in the world — between paramilitary forces and leftist guerrillas, and the illegal drug trade.
“Women of the villages were forced to abandon their homes, and a lot of traditions were broken,” explains Leonor Espinosa, a Bogotá-based chef turned social entrepreneur. She’s made it her mission to revive traditional agriculture, ancestral foodways and culinary know-how among rural, mainly indigenous and Afro-Colombian people.
In the 10 years since Espinosa founded her Leo Espinosa Foundation, known as FUNLEO, she has forged commercial ties that have boosted participants’ average income from 30 to 50 percent, according to the foundation. By demonstrating to rural communities the value of their indigenous farmed and foraged wild foods, she says, she’s also instilling in them an appreciation for Colombia’s astonishing biodiversity.
Espinosa’s work has won her accolades, including the hefty 2017 Basque Culinary World Prize, a €100,000 award given to individuals who “express the transformative power of cuisine.” The network she’s created also serves as a rural supplier for Espinosa’s two Bogotá restaurants; she buys direct from the communities the foundation supports in a demonstration of ethical commerce.
“Leonor is a groundbreaking chef on the Colombian culinary scene,” says Liliana López Sorzano, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine en Español, “because she was the first person to do contemporary Colombian cuisine.” Espinosa was also the first person to delve into regional cooking, “especially the Pacific Coast and the Afro-Colombian territories,” López adds. The resulting trove of new techniques and ingredients has made “being in her restaurant like a discovery, not only for foreigners, but also for locals.”
At her flagship restaurant, Leo, which routinely makes the list of Latin America’s top restaurants, Espinosa serves her modernist takes on deeply researched traditional Colombian cooking and ingredients: Hormigas culonas (translation: big-assed ants)-crusted tuna; pirarucú, a giant, ancient, air-breathing fish; crocodile; and the capybara rodent, which she slow cooks and roasts, then serves au jus with chirarán, a type of purple basil used in Colombian South Pacific cuisine.
With its broad mix of indigenous, Spanish, Arab and Caribbean influences, Colombia has earned the nickname “the country of the thousand kitchens,” says Espinosa. Not unlike activist chefs in other Latin American countries like Panama and Brazil, she’d like to see her native cuisine start getting the global recognition it deserves for its depth and deliciousness.
Although small in size, Colombia is the second most biologically diverse country in the world, with more than 50,000 different plant species alone, and ecosystems that include mountains, desert, savannas, rivers and tropical rain, coastal cloud and mangrove forests.
Celebrating this diversity, Espinosa figures, is also a way of preserving it. Every year the country loses vast tracts of forest and rainforest due to construction, small-scale agriculture, pollution, logging, mining and the cocaine trade. She wants to offer rural communities — where there is no access to food, education or even basic health services — an alternative to the drug production and trafficking that for many is their only source of income.
“There’s no government presence in these areas,” she says. This total lack of interest in its own people, she adds, has caused citizens to look to other countries as culinary and cultural role models, “and lose pride in the traditions of Colombia.” Part of her job, she realizes, has to be to “create a consciousness of how much their own tradition has to give.”
So in the Montes de Maria near the northern coast, where the often brutal turmoil has caused more than 150 women to stop farming and children to be educated in villages other than their own, says Espinosa, she started with a series of workshops focusing on bringing back traditional foodways and collecting seeds from the local forests for a new seed bank. Villagers once again began to grow local crops, including yams, bananas and sweet potatoes. FUNLEO (Espinosa’s daughter, sommelier Laura Hernández-Espinosa, handles day-to-day administration), helped them build wood-burning stoves, which use far less wood than the open pit fires they had been using.
Espinosa first wants to return food security to the traditionally subsistence farmers, then help them begin to sell and trade whatever excess they are able to create.
Espinosa’s foundation, says López, “is giving back to the community by helping them rediscover and use some of the ingredients that they didn’t even know existed, and improve their ways of cooking.”
Along the Guapí River of the Cauca region, southwest of Bogotá, FUNLEO has helped a community of 500 women grow, process and market aromatic herbs mixed with cacao oil. The project, says Espinosa, has brought “a really strong sense of belonging to the people.”
Similarly, not far away in the Naya region, FUNLEO’s goal is to bring back a local heirloom variety of river rice, a subsistence crop that disappeared amid the armed conflict. FUNLEO began an initiative with the motto “I produce and buy in my River Naya” to encourage the resumption of local rice production. More than 50 mothers and heads of families generated a recipe book using rice as the main ingredient and an informational brochure on the cultivation, processing and consumption of it.
Trained as an economist and artist, Espinosa never studied cooking — a blessing, she says, “because the mind of a cook needs to be free, and is fed by freedom.” Instead, she sees her work as an extension of art, “a creative process with multiple ingredients, and the job of the chef to “always be actors in social issues.”
It is crucial, Espinosa notes, to make each project self-sustaining, work she feels has just begun. “Now,” she explains, “we’re at the transformation phase. For this country that’s been submerged in conflict, there is so much more to do … this is not the time to lose speed.”
Nancy Matsumoto is a journalist based in Toronto and New York City who writes about sustainability, food, sake and Japanese-American culture. You can read more of her work here.