In this three-part series on chicha, we travel from the sierra to the jungle to discover Peru’s native brews.
Most chicha in Peru are made of corn. Except masato. This slightly alcoholic drink of the Amazon River jungle region is made from yucca. It is, I had been told in other parts of the country, the only one for which the grain is chewed to foment fermentation.
But once I hit the northern jungle, I began to learn a different story. I traveled the length of the Corredor Transoceánico, towards the river port of Yurimaguas. I arrived in Moyobamba in time for its patron saint feast day. On the first night, the Plaza de Armas was lined with food stalls offering traditional foods. Many had fried cecina (pemmican) and juanes, a round tamale made of chicken and rice steamed in a bijao leaf. A few women were grilling cuts of majaz (the agouti). The most common drink being poured into plastic cups was chicha de higo, a non-alcoholic drink made from figs.
Finally I saw a sign I was hoping to see: Masato con espuma. One woman was whisking eggs into a pale-lemon-colored froth. She then half-filled a styrofoam cup with masato and topped it off with a big dollop of the foam. I asked her if it were true the root is chewed before fermentation. “No,” she responded as she prepared my drink, “only in settlements deep in the jungle do they still make it that way. Most people now use sugar.”
In Yurimaguas, I was told the same thing.
Heading back to the coast, I stop in Tarapoto. One evening I walk up Jirón Alegría Areas de Morey. None of the restaurants catering to the foreign tourists appeal to me: not pizza or pasta, not over-priced plates of ceviche or cecina. After a few blocks, the street becomes dirt-paved. Motorcycle rickshaw taxis pull in front of a one-story building, dropping off passengers who head inside. Under the eaves, a couple digs into heaping plates of food. A long grill wafts smoke and meat aromas into the night air. Every table in the dining hall inside is packed.
The hand-printed sign outside the restaurant, Parrilladas El Bijao, promises locally produced cecina and chorizos, juanes, patarashca (a fish soup prepared and served in a “bowl” of bijao leaves, fish grilled in bijao leaves and other typical dishes. Another sign lists juices made from the tangy camu camu and other jungle fruits—and masato.
At a table next to the grill, owner Betty is smashing steamed plantains in a batán (wooden trough) with a wooden mallet. I ask her if the masato is made the old-fashioned way, by chewing. She says no, but it is homemade. She invites me to sit down on the bench and begins to tell me the process.
“First, we steam the yucca until it is soft. Then in a batán like this, it is ground.” She breaks up lumps of plantain with one hand, and begins pounding the mixture again. “Into the water in which the yucca was cooked, we add sugar. That’s poured into the batán and kneaded into the yucca mash until it is a thick paste.”
She reaches over to a pot on the grill and ladles pork fat and cracklings onto the plantains. She works the dough. Then with quick hands, she forms a small ball. “Here, try this tacacho,” she says, handing it to me.
As she peels more plantains to smash, she continues her explanation of how to make masato. “The yucca mixture is placed into a tinaja (ceramic urn) and fermented for at least three days.”
As I eat the tacacho, I tell her about my search for masato. “Many told me the only place you’ll find the traditional one, made by chewing the yucca first, is deep in the jungle.”
She sets into making a new batch of tacacho. “No. You can find old-fashioned masato in Lamas. There they still chew the root for fermentation. They don’t use sugar.”
Her companion has prepared my order. I take a seat the couple’s long table to receive my plate of majaz, yucca and roasted maduros (ripe plantains). The waitress brings out a chilled glass of the house masato to accompany my repast. This 15-day-old brew is smooth—much different than the chicha de jora I had tried in Arequipa.
In that southern Peruvian city, chef Walter Bustamante Cano told me over three hundred varieties of chicha exist. I have tried four. To savor the others would take a lifetime.