In this three-part series on chicha, we travel from the sierra to the jungle to discover Peru’s native brews.
Chicha de maiz, chicha pujagua, chicha raizuda, pelo de maíz, goes the song by the Nicaraguan musicians, Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy. This fermented grain drink, usually made of corn, exists throughout Latin America, from México to Argentina. The Real Academia Española says the word came from the Kuna nation of Panama, for which “chichab” means corn. The beverage, which has been around since pre-Columbian times, has a low alcohol content. Non-alcoholic varieties exist: In Panama, chicha is a fruit drink. Peru and Ecuador have chicha morada, made of purple corn, pineapple and spices.
Chicha is especially common in the Andean countries. No matter where you go, you’ll find places flying a white flag, announcing that urns of the drink are available. When the combi breaks down in the middle of nowhere, deep in the Peruvian mountains, someone will scare some up from a local woman. The stranded passengers will pass the time waiting for repairs to be done, passing around a jug of chicha. In village feasts, celebrants will gather around the cook fires to share a mug, dispelling the chill of the altiplano night.
The Andes’ native brew is still a drink of the common people. Chicherías—chicha bars—exist even in Lima. When the owner of a hostel in that capital city was gossiping about a scandalous brawl that happened at one, I said, “Such places still exist?” She looked at me, up and down, “They aren’t for foreigners—and not for decent people.”
If you want to try this corn beer, you’ll most likely find it out in the smaller villages. In larger cities, like Arequipa in Southern Peru, the central markets may have a counter where a woman ladles up the brew into a customer’s recycled jug.
While in Arequipa, I decide to learn more about this traditional drink. I cross the city’s splendid Plaza de Armas. In the center, the fountain leaps into the sun, capturing pieces of light and showering them upon the pigeons pecking at the handfuls of crushed corn grain tossed by families posing for photos. On the north edge of the square is the imposing Cathedral built of the white sillar volcanic stone that gives this city its nickname: La Ciudad Blanca. The other three sides of the square are surrounded by two-story, portaled buildings. I enter one and climb the steps to Sonccollay, a restaurant specializing in pre-Incan cuisine.
Out on the balcony overlooking the plaza, owner and master chef Walter Bustamante Cano is holding court in his realm. He speaks of the apu (spirits) of the three snow-capped volcanoes that edge the city: Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu.
His passion flares when he speaks of food. His thick eyebrows and waving hands accent the benefits of the ancient way of preparing foods. It is a union made of love and to promote health and wellbeing. It is a uniting of the universal energies of Wiracocha (Father Sky) with the material manifestations of Pachamama (Mother Earth) in the Kay Pacha, the world of the Here and Now where humans live.
Chef Walter explains that in Quechua and Aymará, chicha is called aswa. Peru has various types of aswa. In fact, there are over 300 types of this native beer, including ones made of peanut and all colors of corn. Here in the Andes, the traditional one is jora aswa and kinua aswa, made of quinoa grain. In the north, maka, made of algarrobina (carob), is more common. The jungle region has masato, made of yucca. In some areas, the grain is chewed and then strained through straw, to help fermentation.
He fills my traditional, clay kero cup with jora aswa. I drink the cloudy liquid pure, without the addition of sweetener. The taste is lighter than I expected and slightly bitter.
Chef Walter explains that the traditional way for making chicha consists of three steps. The first step is to let the fresh kernels of purple corn ferment at least three days. Then the juice and corn are boiled and strained into a chamba (large ceramic urn). In Northern Peru, the urn is buried—a custom that has faded in the south. Lastly, the liquid is fermented for three days to one year. The longer the fermentation, the stronger the brew will be.
Chef Walter takes me to the entryway of his restaurant and pulls a colorful woven cloth from the top of a large amphora. The bitter smell of the chicha wafts up from the dark pool within.
My next stop is Mercado San Camilo, Arequipa’s central market, to pick up on the ingredients for another type of Peruvian native drink, chicha morada.