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Crafting Flavor: The fermentation story of an enduring, corn drink

Photo: Sharing stories over chicha morada (glass pitcher) and chicha de jora (ceramic pitcher). Ana Pearson.

Language: Spanish (Español)

Synopsis by Cultural Anthropologist Chloé Frommer. Fermentation is a cross-cultural, botanical food and beverage-processing technique that facilitates preservation, detoxification, digestion, and taste. With modernization, the visual appearance, aroma and flavor profile of fermented products have also developed as specific key registers. But before all that there has always been meaning. Fermented products symbolize and materialize specific cosmological heritages – ranging from large ceremonial festivals to isolated, sacred rituals, or ritually-altered states. The contribution below focuses on chicha – a fermented drink which can rely upon distinct botanicals as well as a traditional technique (muqueado) of salivary-chewing in order to ferment ripe, corn grains. Since it is only grown (not older, nor younger) women who are permitted to perform the muqueado, fertility may also be connoted. 

Ana Pearson

Why is it that, in a world full of custom pleasures tailored to the taste of the masses, one can still find beauty, meaning, and purpose in the things that fail to change with the spirit of the age? 

The answer, as unseemly as it may appear, can be found in the traditional ways chicha - a traditional, Andean corn-based drink more often than not fermented - continues to be prepared to this day. Preparing chicha opens a window on the value of tradition, its meaning, and purpose in the collective mind of Peru’s enduring culture.

Born next to the stunning Peruvian Andes, chicha has, over the centuries, made its way across Peru in the same way a river runs through a valley or the way blood runs through our veins, reaching even the tiniest spots, and bringing refreshment and life to everything around them. 

For example, in Lima, Peru’s capital city, chicha morada (purple chicha), a non-fermented type of chicha based on Andean purple corn, pineapple, cinnamon, and some other fruits and spices, dominates. For there is really no single food, time of the day, or season of the year, when a cool, sweet, and refreshing glass of chicha morada will not be welcomed with great delight.

However, while chicha morada has soared in terms of its widespread availability, the expansion has come at a cost: the loss of some of the richest culinary traditions, which reach back several generations. 

On the other hand, fermented types of chicha, the kind that not only refresh, but which also give so many traditional Peruvian dishes their unique and acclaimed flavor, continue to be prepared and sought after because of their adherence to the traditional preparation processes. 

Growing up, I remember hearing stories about the importance of making chicha the right way from my father, who was from Piura, a city in northern Peru where no meal is complete without a cold pitcher of chicha de jora, the fermented chicha par excellence.

According to these stories, it all starts early in the morning when women take off to the local market in pursuit of the perfect kind of corn. Across Peru, there exist so many different varieties of corn that listing them here would miss the point. Instead, remember whether you are in a hot valley in northern Piura, or on a crisp mountainside along the mighty Andes, selecting the right corn— tender, ripe, and hearty—remains essential. 

After the corns have been properly selected, the grains are separated from the cob, and soaked in water overnight, in order to jumpstart the grains’ germination process. After this, they are left to dry and germinate for about three days in a house’s shadowy corner, so as to protect them from receiving too much sunlight. Once the grain has sprouted, the family gathers together in order to sun-dry the corn. This usually happens next to the house, where the grains are left to dry on a plastic cover. This, too, takes approximately three days.

Photo: My son Diego and his friends, preparing chicha for a Sunday barbeque. Ana Pearson.

Three days later, the grains are ready for the mill, converting corn grains into very rustic flour, since it does not really matter much whether some grains are left without grinding. Once the flour is obtained, very early in the morning, fetching cold water is the first step in the direction of great chicha. The fresher the water, the better the taste of the chicha. Cold and fresh river water is usually the superior choice, whenever available.

Once the water is collected, it is put to boil. Here, a constant source of heat is of supreme importance. It should be no surprise, then, that it has always been considered that good firewood makes good chicha. In Piura, Algarrobo (Propopis nigra; black carob tree) wood is the superior choice. Apart from producing pods full of a delicious and nutritious “honey,” Algarrobos are also notorious for their resilience in the dry coastal deserts and their strong wood, which after serving as firewood can reused as coal for cooking or ironing.

From early morning to late night, corn flour is put to boil under the careful gaze of the home’s expert brewers: adult women. Now, in the same way constant heat is key for perfect chicha, so is steady and slow cooling. After the water-flour mix is done boiling, it is place is wide ceramic jugs. There, the blend is continually stirred at a steady pace with a thick and rugged wooden rod. 

Now, here is where things get really interesting: at the same time women stir the concoction, all grains that survived the milling process are chewed and put back into the stirring pot, in a process known as muqueado. This is done in order to extract all the acid possible from the grains, as well as activating the fermenting enzymes naturally present in saliva, which makes the fermentation process possible in the first place. Important in all this, is that only adult women are the ones who are allowed to muquear, with younger ladies joining only occasionally, and never elderly women.


Ana Pearson, Vox Orbis 2015