What is Chicha?
By Sarah Confer
If you could sum up Peruvian culture in a word, “chicha” might just be it.
Most commonly associated with a fermented or non-fermented drink made from corn, the word chicha also describes a genre of music, a related art form, and has even found its way into the popular vernacular with the expression, ni chicha ni limonada (neither one thing nor the other).
Chicha (chee-cha) is an iconic part of Peru, and it’s worth taking a closer look at its origins and continued importance in the country today.
Chicha de Jora: Fermented Corn Beer
When people speak of chicha, they are almost always thinking of chicha de jora. Chicha de jora is a type of fermented beverage made from corn. Once an important ceremonial drink during the Incan Empire, chicha is still a very popular drink today, especially in the highlands around Cusco.
There are lots of different corn varieties in Peru, but chicha is made from either white or yellow corn. The traditional chicha-making process is very laborious and can take up to a month from start to finish. The end result is a cloudy yellow liquid with a tangy, vaguely corn-like flavour. As it is made from fermented corn, chicha de jora is an alcoholic beverage, though the alcohol level is typically low (1-3%).
While you should definitely try chicha if you come to Peru – and you will have ample opportunities to do so if you travel through the Sacred Valley! – it is definitely an acquired taste. It is quite refreshing but the tart, tangy corn flavour can be a hard swallow for novices.
Luckily, you can find another, sweeter variety of chicha called frutillada. As the name implies, frutillada is made by mixing traditional chicha with strawberry juice or purée (strawberry often goes by the Spanish word frutilla in Peru and Bolivia). This light pink version of chicha is much easier on the palate!
Where to Find Chicha in Peru
Chicha – including the alcoholic chicha de jora, frutillada, or non-alcoholic chicha de quinoa – is ubiquitous in the Peruvian Andes.
In the Sacred Valley, in rural communities and even in some neighbourhoods outside the touristic centre of Cusco, the tell-tale sign for chicha is a long stick with red plastic or red cloth wrapped around the end, sticking out of the side of a house. The red bag or cloth means – “We have chicha!”
You can also find chicha being sold on some street corners or in the market, often out of big plastic tubs. There are also traditional chicherías that, like pubs and taverns that serve beer, serve chicha and little else.
No matter where you try it, chicha is typically served in oversize glasses, so you better be thirsty! It’s also traditional to, before you take your first sip, spill a little on the ground, as an offering to Mother Earth.
Chicha is also used as an ingredient in some dishes like adobo, a rich and slightly spicy pork stew. So even if you don’t try a glass, you may inadvertently get a taste of chicha in your meal!
How to Make Chicha de Jora
The first step in making chicha is to let the white or yellow corn kernels germinate. Often, this sprouted corn is first dried and ground into a flour before being boiled. After boiling, the mixture is left to ferment in large ceramic pots. Traditionally, these pots were partially buried in the ground. The fermentation process is called chichar, and may be a clue to the etymological origin of the word chicha.
If you find yourself touring the Sacred Valley in Peru, there are several quaint spots where you can witness chicha-making before your very eyes, and even taste a sample! Many of these places not only offer chicha demonstrations, but also other traditional activities like guinea-pig raising, Incan games and ceramics.
Another variety of chicha popular in Peru may be even more common: chicha morada. Made from maiz morado (purple corn), chicha morada is a non-alcoholic chicha drink more akin to juice than beer.
It might sound weird to think of drinking “corn juice” but chicha morada is as tasty as it is pretty. The dark purple drink is made by boiling dried purple corn with pineapple rinds or other fruit, lime juice, cinnamon and cloves.
It is often served accompanying a meal and can be very sweet, but don’t let that fool you! It turns out that chicha morada has a surprising array of health benefits, from reducing blood sugar levels to regulating cholesterol and improving circulation.
It is so beloved by Peruvians that you can even find prepared chicha morada mix and bottled chicha morada in the grocery store!
Origins of Chicha
Chicha had special significance during the Incan Empire. While legend has it that chicha de jora was accidentally discovered during the Inca Tupac Yupanqui’s rule (approximately 1456-1461), it was most likely around long before then.
As the story goes, heavy rains one year infiltrated stores of corn, causing it to ferment. The sour-smelling liquid that resulted was considered spoiled and discarded. A starving passerby found the discarded drink and drank it, becoming inebriated. The rumour spread and soon, chicha became the favoured drink of the Incas!
Academics, on the other hand, consider chicha to date back as much as 5000 years. Early versions were made from whatever organic material was on hand: manioc, cactus, fruit, potatoes, and more. The development of chicha is even considered to be on par with the transformation of cacao into a ceremonial beverage reserved for the elite. “Wherever it went, from Central to South America, [chicha] became imbued with social, economic, and supernatural significance.”
Despite its long history, chicha’s importance may best be appreciated by examining its role in the Inca Empire.
Ceremonial & Religious Importance of Chicha during the Incan Empire
For the Incas, corn was considered a divine gift to humanity. Drinking chicha made from corn was a form of communion between the Incas, their ancestors and the gods. Incan royalty likely consumed chicha from ceremonial cups known as keros. Chicha played a central role in human sacrifices and other types of rituals aimed at honouring the gods and pachamama, Mother Earth.
It was also a political tool, not unlike pipe-smoking in North American indigenous cultures, used to open negotiations, establish relationships and show respect. There is a story told by the Incan chronicler Tito Cusi that, when he offered the Spanish Dominican priest, Vicente de Valverde, a cup of chicha, the Inca ruler Atahualpa meant it as a gesture of goodwill. The priest, unfamiliar with this political ritual, assumed Atahualpa meant to poison him and knocked the drink to the ground. This act outraged the Inca ruler, spoiling any chance of good relations between the two.
Chicha was so important to Incan society that chicha-making was one of the tasks, along with religious service, weaving and cooking, that was entrusted to the “chosen women” of the aclla huasi. At that time, the women actually chewed the corn, letting digestive enzymes in the saliva initiate the fermentation process.
Even though chicha is widely consumed in Peru today, it remains an important part of ritual ceremonies like pagos a la tierra (tributes to the Earth).
Chicha in Modern Peruvian Culture
ChiCha by Gastón Acurio
Peruvian cuisine has been skyrocketing in fame in recent years. Michelin-starred Peruvian restaurants abound across the world, and many Peruvian chefs have been distinguishing themselves as among the best of the best.
One such superstar chef is Gastón Acurio. Acurio is a culinary tour-de-force, with numerous books, magazine articles, TV programmes and, of course, restaurants to his name. Considered instrumental in the creation of Novoandino cuisine and introducing Peruvian flavours to the world, he named one of his restaurants after this quintessential Andean beverage, chicha.
ChiCha, the restaurant, has locations in Cusco and Arequipa, and is dedicated to celebrating regional food. Each dish, crafted with leading culinary techniques, is simultaneously imbued with the tradition and culture – and ingredients – of the surrounding area.
No longer just a drink, since the late 1960s the term “chicha” has also become associated with a genre of Peruvian music. Chicha music blends the tropical rhythms of cumbia with Andean huayno.
The genre developed among communities of migrants who emigrated from the provinces to Lima. In the beginning, chicha was a way for people to express the hardships of life as a migrant living on the edge of urban society, and nostalgia for what they were forced to leave behind.
Over time, chicha absorbed other musical influences, including psychedelic rock, and even inspired a new art form. Influenced by the traditionally bright colours found in indigenous textiles, chicha art is characterised by bold lettering in gradations of fluorescent colours, outlined in black.
Originally created as posters to advertise chicha music, chicha art can now be found decorating everything from murals to t-shirts to cloth bags. “In essence, chicha has come to mean combining the traditional with the modern, the rural with the urban.”
From the Tables of Incan Royalty to the Chichería
Versions of chicha are made all across South and Central America from a variety of ingredients, not just corn. Even within Peru, regional ingredients and preferences shape the type of chicha that can be found, from the chicha de guiñapo found in Arequipa to chicha de cacao in the tropical La Convención province of Cusco.
No matter what type of chicha you try or where, drink to Peru and to the Inca gods – and don’t forget to give a sip to pachamama!
About the Author
Sarah Confer has over 10 years’ experience working with indigenous communities in Peru. She travelled to Peru for the first time in 2006, where the culture, the people and the landscapes ignited her passion. Sarah has travelled extensively throughout the country as well as the rest of South America, and is especially familiar with the Cusco and Sacred Valley areas. After completing her law degree at the University of Victoria in 2017, Sarah now splits her time between Cusco, Peru and Kingston, Ontario.