Chicha de Jora, The Drink Of the Ancient Incas
WHAT TO DRINK: Chicha de Jora (not to be confused with the non-fermented, sweet, purple-corn drink Chica Morado)
WHERE TO DRINK IT: In the Peruvian Andes; especially in and around the Sacred Valley*Note: There are many countries within Central and South America that make different versions of Chicha but here I will just talk about the Peruvian way
Corn lovers rejoice! Beer lovers too! Did you know you can make beer from corn? Well, you most certainly can and if you are planning to be in Peru anytime in the future, you can’t miss trying this ancient, classic beverage. Chicha de Jora is a drink that dates back to the time of the Inca Empire. Traditionally and even today, only women are supposed to make chicha, otherwise you risk offending the corn god Mama Sara. And lord knows we wouldn’t want to go offending any corn gods!
Back in these times, the chicha was made and drank in large quantities for ritual purposes. Chicha is made from germinated, sprouted corn which gets boiled and is left to ferment leaving behind a cloudy, beige beverage with a slight effervescence, similar to Kombucha. This is because the bacteria is still fermenting in your glass as you drink it.
Peru is steeped in ancient culture and traditions that are still alive to this day. In the Andes mountains, especially in and around the Sacred Valley in Peru, you can still find chicha being sold in the small, rural villages at what is known as a chicheria. In ancient times, the custom was to hang red flowers around a long stick, which would protrude from the house where the chicha was made.
Today, this tradition has changed slightly and now you have to look for a red bag, squashed into a roundish shape and attached to the protruding stick. These places are usually just villagers homes and you are more than welcome to enter and ask for a glass or two of chicha. Traditionally it will be served from a halved gourd, as pictured above but sometimes they serve it in giant glasses too.
I remember my first time trying Chicha de Jora. Laurent and I were hiking around the Sacred Valley and I had heard that if you see a house with a bright red bag attached to a stick, you could find chicha there. We stumbled upon one in the small village of Yucay located in the province of Urubamba. Being in the hot, dry Andes, we had worked up quite a thirst and so we figured why not? We entered the home of an elderly woman who was more than happy to oblige our request to try some of her chicha.
We were presented with a cloudy, grey/brown beverage with a heady foam, which was unchilled and smelled quite sour. Not exactly the refreshing drink two hikers are dreaming of! But we gave it a shot anyway. When the farmers who work these fields receive this beverage, they always pour the first little bit out onto the earth for Pachamama (the mother earth), as a sign of respect and to give mother earth the first taste. We poured our first sip out too, honoring this tradition. Then came our turn. The taste was indeed a bit sour (like the smell) and also slightly sweet from the corn. It’s got an earthy flavor which I liked a lot and due to the low alcohol content (usually only 1-3%), you can drink quite a bit. It wasn’t lemonade but it was surprisingly refreshing in the heat of the day.
The process to make Chicha de Jora is very similar to beer and if you are interested in fermenting things or making homemade beer, then you can make it right in your own home with a little time and patience. The whole process will take about two weeks. First you have to soak the raw, dried corn kernels for about 2 days to allow them to be ready for sprouting. Back in the Andes, they use banana leaves to lay out the corn. If you don’t have these, you can simply use a bucket but be sure to allow for space to let the kernels get some air. It will take about 3 or 4 days for the corn to germinate (it will grow a little sprout). This sprout should be twice the length of the kernel when it’s ready.
Did you know? In ancient times (and still done today in some places) the chicha maker used to germinate the corn directly in their mouth. Corn would be ground up and moistened with the maker’s saliva. The enzyme naturally present in the mouth would convert it into maltose. Now don’t go getting grossed out. This process has been in place in pre-modern times around the world, including in the making of sake in Japan. And since the mixture gets boiled after, there was no worry about sharing germs.
The next step is to dry it out. Outside is best and 2 sunny/dry days is needed. After the germinated corn is dried, it’s ready to begin fermentation. You will need what is called a starter. This part is where it gets a tad complicated and is best for people who have had experienced in fermenting. The goal is to end up with a mixture of Lactobacillus plantarum, and regular ale yeast.
Next you have to ground up the germinated corn into a flour and boil it. In the traditional way it just gets boiled for a few days, then cooled and strained. The strained mixture is covered and left to ferment up to 2 days or much more, depending upon how strong you want your chicha to be. If you use the starter, it will produce a properly fermented product but you should click here for a very detailed recipe, if you are serious about making this at home.