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In South and Central America, chicha is a fermented or non-fermented beverage usually derived from maize. Chicha includes corn beer known as chicha de jora and non-alcoholic beverages such as chicha morada. Chichas can also be made from manioc root (also called yuca or cassava), grape, apple or various other fruits.
While chicha is most commonly associated with maize, the word is used in the Andes for almost any homemade fermented drink, and many unfermented drinks. Many different grains or fruits are used to make "chicha" in different regions.
The exact origin of the word chicha is debated. One belief is that the word chicha is of Taino origin and became a generic term used by the Spanish to define any and all fermented beverages brewed by indigenous peoples in the Americas. However, according to the Real Academia Española and other authors, the word chicha comes from the Kuna word chichab, or "chiab" which means maize. Furthermore, according to Don Luis G. Iza it comes from the Nahuatl word chichiatl, which means "fermented water"; the verb chicha meaning "to sour a drink" and the postfix -atl meaning water. (Note that these etymologies are not mutually exclusive.)
The common Spanish expression Ni chicha ni limonada (neither chicha nor lemonade) is roughly equivalent to the English "neither fish nor fowl". (Thus, it is used when something is not easily placed into a category.)
Chicha de jora is a corn beer prepared by germinating maize, extracting the malt sugars, boiling the wort, and fermenting it in large vessels, traditionally huge earthenware vats, for several days. The process is essentially the same as the process for the production of regular beer. It is traditionally made with Jora corn, a type of corn from the Andes. Some add quinoa or other adjuncts to give it consistency, then it is boiled. Chancaca, a hard form of sugar (like sugar cane), helps with the fermentation process.
It is traditionally prepared from a specific kind of yellow maize (jora) and is usually referred to as chicha de jora. It has a pale straw color, a slightly milky appearance, and a slightly sour aftertaste, reminiscent of hard apple cider. It is drunk either young and sweet or mature and strong. It contains a relatively small amount of alcohol, 1–3% abv.
In some cultures, instead of germinating the maize to release the starches therein, the maize is ground, moistened in the chicha maker's mouth, and formed into small balls, which are then flattened and laid out to dry. Naturally occurring ptyalin enzymes in the maker's saliva catalyses the breakdown of starch in the maize into maltose. (This process of chewing grains or other starches was used in the production of alcoholic beverages in pre-modern cultures around the world, including, for example, sake in Japan.) Chicha prepared in this manner is known as Chicha de Muko.
Chicha morada is not fermented. It is usually made from ears of purple maize (maíz morado), which are boiled with pineapple rind, cinnamon, and cloves. This gives a strong, purple-colored liquid, which is then mixed with sugar and lemon. This beverage is usually taken as a refreshment, but in recent years many health benefits of purple corn have been found. Chicha morada is Peruvian and is generally drunk as an accompaniment to food.
Chicha de jora has been prepared and consumed in communities throughout in the Andes for millennia. The Inca used chicha for ritual purposes and consumed it in vast quantities during religious festivals. Mills in which it was probably made were found at Machu Picchu.
In recent years, however, the traditionally prepared chicha is becoming increasingly rare. Only in a small number of towns and villages in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and in Costa Rica, is it still prepared.
It is still very popular throughout southern Peru, sold in every small town and the residential neighborhoods of the larger cities. Normally sold in 'chicherias' consisting of an unused room or a corner of the patio of a home, these generally unlicensed businesses can provide a significant boost to a family's income. They're generally identified by a bamboo pole sticking out the open door, adorned with (often red) flags, flowers, ribbons or colored plastic bags.
Normally sold in large caporal (1/2 liter) glasses to be drunk on location, or by liter if it's taken home, chicha is generally sold straight from the earthenware chomba where it was brewed. In the Cuzco area often the recipient will first drip a portion of the foamy head on the ground with the phrase "Pachamama, santa tierra" (Pachamama is Quechua for "Earth Mother". Santa tierra is Spanish for "blessed ground"), a tradition dating from the time of the Spanish conquest. This tradition of spilling the first portion of the beverage (including beer) is a "brindis" or "toast" common in the highlands of Bolivia as well (including the Capital La Paz), explained as giving the first fruits to Mother Earth.
Chicha Morada is believed to reduce blood pressure. Chicha de Jora is also being researched as an anti-inflammatory agent on the prostate.
Chicha can be mixed with Coca Sek, a Colombian beverage made from coca leaf.
There are a number of regional varieties of chicha, which can be roughly divided into lowland (Amazonia) and highland varieties, of which there are many.
Throughout the Amazon Basin (including the interiors of Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil), chicha is made most often with cassava (yuca) root, sometimes with plantain. Traditionally, the chicha is prepared from cassava root by women, using a very simple method. Pieces of washed, peeled root are thoroughly chewed in the mouth, and the resulting juice is spat into a bowl. The fibrous mass that remains in the mouth is used elsewhere. The bowl is set aside for a few hours to allow the juice to ferment. This chicha is a somewhat opaque blue white, similar in appearance to defatted milk, and its flavor is mildly sweet and sour. Cassava root is very starchy, and enzymes in the preparer's saliva rapidly convert the starch to simple sugar, which is converted by wild yeast and/or bacteria into alcohol. In Peruvian Amazonia, chicha is called masato.' '
It is traditional for families to offer chicha to arriving guests. Children are offered new chicha that has not fermented, whereas adults are offered fermented chicha; the most highly fermented chicha, with its significant alcohol content, is reserved for men.
In Bolivia chicha is most often made from maize, especially in the highlands, but amaranth chicha is also traditional and popular. Chicha made from sweet manioc, plantain, or banana is also common in the lowlands. Bolivian chicha often has alcohol. A good description of the preparation of a Bolivian way to make chicha can be found in Cutler, Hugh and Martin Cardenas, "Chicha a Native South American Beer"
In Chile there are two main types of chicha: apple chicha produced in southern Chile and grape chicha produced in central Chile. Both are alcoholic beverages with no distillation, only fermentation. Chicha is mostly consumed in the countryside and during festivities, such as Fiestas Patrias on September 18. Chicha is usually not found on formal supermarkets unless close to September 18.
In Colombia, regional chicha ingredients include maize, yuca, quinoa, pineapple, rice, and potatoes. Some recipes include cannabis, coca leaf, or other traditional entheogens, such as chichaja. During celebrations, people drink refreshing and nutritious preparations of chicha.
In Colombia, preparation of creative chicha recipes is considered an art. A person who makes good chicha is respected, but it is usually served only to family and friends because of cases of prohibition, difficulty in storing and transporting it, and prejudice against indigenous traditions. While primarily consumed in rural areas, some bars and restaurants in Bogotá and other Andean cities serve chicha. Chicha is home-brewed in some countercultural circles.
In Ecuador chicha is prepared according to zone, lowland or highland. Highland chicha is likely to contain maize or quinoa. Chicha can be purchased from chicheros, or in restaurants, in many towns across the country, with type and availability varying seasonally. Otavalo hosts a festival of chicha, called Yamor, in September, which includes chicha contests and sampling of over 30 different varieties based on different types of maize.
European bread was once made in Ecuador using concho, the dregs of chicha, producing, by some accounts, a bread superior to that later made with other methods (and better milling): "In olden times when the sediment of chicha called concho was used as a ferment, we had good bread; and now with better mills good quality bread has disappeared entirely."
In El Salvador, chicha usually refers to an alcoholic drink made with maize, panela and pineapple. It is used as a drink and also as an ingredient on many traditional dishes, such as "Gallo en Chicha", a local version of Coq au vin. A non-alcoholic version usually named "Fresco de chicha" (chicha soft drink) is made with the same ingredients, but without allowing it to ferment.
In Honduras there is a chicha made from roots (raiz) of a tree.
In Honduras there is a strong tradition of Chicha consumption especially when made from Pineapple. This fermented drink is a strong tradition that denotes the consistent respect of indigenous traditions. The Chicha is prepared mostly for the "Las Feries" or the days of worship, and "Semana Santa" also known as Easter in the American Continent. Chicha is dispensed among family members and it is rarely bought not because of prohibition but because it is considered a noble drink prepared by family members. While the process is similar, each family has its own signature Chicha.
Chicha is not sold in Honduras, it is a "family dish" similar to a Thanksgiving turkey family dinner, a traditional event, shared with visiting friends and family. Chicha in Honduras is considered more than just a drink, it is considered an alcoholic brew. Many men find fascination in reaching the state of intoxication while among loving members of the family. Often the Chicha drink is an excuse by men to participate in traditional dances, celebration, singing and happy family times. Men fall asleep after a long hard day of feast. Chicha is not known to leave a lasting after effect nor addiction.
In Managua and Granada,"chicha de maiz" is a typical drink, unfermented and served very cold. It is often flavored with banana or vanilla flavors, and its saleswomen can be heard calling "¡Chicha, cafe y jugo frio!" in the squares.
Nicaraguan "chicha de maiz" is made by soaking the corn in water over night. On the following day it is ground and placed in water, red food colouring is added, and the whole mixture is cooked. Once cooled, sugar and more water is added. On the following day one adds further water, sugar and flavoring. Although fermented chicha is available, the unfermented type is the most common.
In Panama, chicha can simply mean "fruit drink". Unfermented chicha often is called batido, another name for any drink containing a fruit puree. Locally, among the Kuna or Gundetule of the San Blass chain of islands "chicha fuerte" refers to the fermented maise and Grandmother Saliva mixture, which chicha is enjoyed in special or Holy days. Group drunkenness...dancing...singing...smoking... and for the initiates into the deeper mysteries of Baba's Way, visions into other dimensions...other levels of conscience. The luckiest few will enjoy communion with the greatest of Kuna Prophets: Ibeorgun and his sister Olokirkadiayi. A veritable MardiGras in a Thatched hut. (Personal experiences of Guanikunkilele,1939) While chicha fuerte most traditionally refers to chicha made of germinated corn (germination helps to convert starch to sugar), any number of fruits can be fermented into unique, homemade versions of the beverage. In rural areas, chicha fuerte is the refreshment of choice during and after community work parties (juntas), as well as during community dances (tamboritos).
In Lima and other large coastal cities, chicha morada is prepared from purple corn (maiz morado). It is usually sweet and unfermented, and is consumed cold like a soft drink. It is even industrially prepared and sold in bottles, cans and even in sachets as an artificially-flavored powder drink.
The word "Chicha" also means an informal, popular, cheap and transient arrangement, creating the "Cultura Chicha" ("Chicha Culture"), a mix of concepts made by the immigration for people outside of Lima to Lima. For example, "Diario Chicha" ("Chicha Newspaper") refers to Peruvian yellow press and "Musica Chicha" ("Chicha Music") refers to Peruvian Cumbia.
Remains of a 1,000 year old production facility for chicha have been discovered on a mountaintop in Peru.
Sometimes it is made with pasta or semolina instead of rice and is commonly called "chicha de pasta".
In most large cities, chicha can be offered by street vendors, commonly referred to as Chicheros, these vendors usually use a flour-like mix and just add water, and generally serve them with chopped ice and a straw and they may ask to add chocolate chips and sugared condensed milk on top. It can also be found in commercial presentations just like milk and juices. The Venezuelan Andean regions (such as Mérida) prepare an alternative version, with added fermented pineapple, which has a more liquory taste. This variety is commonly referred to as Chicha Andina and is a typical Christmas time beverage.
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