Once upon a time, people drank water or chicha. But nowadays, all over the world, people drink soda. And not just any soda, but Coke or Pepsi. They divide the world; places either serve one or the other, but almost never both. It has gotten to the point where they become the ground on which local cultures are built. Nonetheless, Peru is an exception.
Whether you are eating chifa or ceviche, pollo a la brasa with french fries or a lomo saltado, a hamburger or something from KFC, chances are you will wash it down with the bright yellow, sweet and mildly carbonated Inca Kola. Sure Coke and Pepsi are available, but nothing in the field of soft drinks is more Peruvian and more liked by the people than Inca Kola.
In between that once upon a time and now, when soda waters first moved from individualized mixes at soda fountains to mass marketed commercial concoctions there were probably thousands of different carbonated beverages. Most of them have fallen into the forgotten closet of history, even though once they may have fizzed with national pride.
The big soft drink companies have bought up almost all the rest and, in most cases, closed them down to make even more shelf space for their ubiquitous black sodas. But Inca Kola still stands and survives.
Nothing compares to it, in terms of the pride and value Peruvians attach to its yellow bottles. Beginning with the name “Inca” it carries the meaning of national identity and just proves, once again, that maybe the taste and nutritional value of food is far less important than the meaning it carries for people.
Nevertheless, Inca Kola was not invented by a Peruvian, but by an English immigrant to Peru. But in this, like the story of so many of the “hot,” contemporary Peruvian foods, immigration is part of what makes it Peruvian. While the land of the Incas, Peru also is a land of immigrants.
As an example, the current President of the country has an indigenous last name, whose roots may lie in the Aymara tongue, Humala. But he ran against a panoply of last names from around the world including: Toledo, Fujimori, and Kuczynski.
Joseph Robinson Lindley, also called José, the inventor of Inca Kola, was born in Doncaster, Yorkshire. Not only was this a Roman town, by the time José was born there it was an industrial center fed by abundant coal mines nearby. Born in 1859, Mr. Lindley moved to the ancient Lima suburb of Rimac in 1910. In 1911 he invented Inca Kola, based on the indigenous Peruvian Lemon Verbena.
Since then, his business–though he died in 1932–came to occupy a central place in Peru. Of course, his product developed just as soft drinks took off along with so many other mass-produced industrial foods such as beer, pastas, and panetones at a time when cities began to explode and nationalism roared along with them.
Lindley’s yellow Kola, though, built and continues to build a brand loyalty tied to the Peruvian national soul that still prevails. Unlike in other countries where Coca Cola or Pepsi prevailed through one market strategy or another, in Peru they have not been able to unseat Inca Kola. Instead Coca Cola–which is also made with an indigenous Peruvian product, the symbolically rich leaf of the coca shrub–bought shares of Lindley at a time when it needed relief from debt and the two firms signed an agreement that allows Inca Kola to continue unabated.
Because of its taste, often described in English as “bubble-gum,” the very sweet and only lightly carbonated Inca Kola, is said to go very well with fried foods and with rich meats, although it also is the accompaniment of choice for Peru’s ceviche, raw fish in lime juice. It is like a form of bottled sunshine, the ultimate Inca gold (not the gold the Spanish took to melt down from the ransom paid to free the Emperor Atahuallpa, but what that metal represented, the rays of the sun that still shines freely over Peru.)
You cannot say you have really been to Peru, if you have not tried this drink. It may not be the ancient chicha, nor the purple chicha morada, but it is the beverage of Peruvian modernity. It is what Peruvians prefer on a hot day and when they sit down to eat.