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Chicha is a term used in some regions of Latin America for several varieties of fermented beverages, particularly those derived from maize, but which also describes similar non-alcoholic beverages. Chicha may also be made from manioc root (also called yuca or cassava), or fruits, and other ingredients.
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 slight amount of alcohol, 1-3%.
While chicha is most commonly associated with maize, the word is used in the Andes for almost any homemade fermented drink, and many different grains or fruits are used to make "chicha" in different regions.
According to the Real Academia Española and other authors, the word chicha comes from the Kuna word chichab, or "chiab" which means maize. However, according to Luis Goatherd 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.)
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 morada is not fermented. It is usually made of ears of purple maize (choclo morado) which are boiled with pineapple rind, cinnamon, and clove. 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 known as api in Bolivia and is generally drunk as an accompaniment to empanadas.
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 southern Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia (especially in the Colombian Andean region in and around Bogotá), and in Costa Rica, is it still prepared.
Chicha Morada is said[who?] to reduce blood pressure. It is also under investigation that Chicha de Jora acts as an anti-inflammatory 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.
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 but amaranth chicha is also traditional and popular. 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", Harvard University Botanical Museum Leaflets, V.13, N.3, December 29, 1947.
- In Chile chicha is made from grapes or apples and drunk during the 18th of September celebrations (National Day). "Chicha" can also refer to a type of homemade sweet wine made by families for special occasions.
- In many parts of Colombia chicha is prepared with maize, yuca, quinoa, pineapple, rice, potatoes, etc., depending on the zone. Some recipes even include cannabis or coca leaf, or other traditional entheogens. It is drunk in large quantities in celebrations but also as a refreshing and nutritious beverage.
Chicha is prepared in many ways, and is considered an art, and a person who makes good chicha is respected, but it is usually kept between family and friends because of cases of prohibition, the difficulty of storing and transporting it, as well as prejudice against indigenous traditions (though the tradition has spread to many non-indigenous communities). While primarily consumed in rural areas, some bars and restaurants in Bogotá and other Andean cities serve chicha, and the drink is especially popular in countercultural circles as a sort of DIY alternative to mass-produced beers.
In Ecuador chicha is, like in Colombia, prepared according to zone, lowland or highland. Highland chicha is likely to contain maize or quinoa. Chicha can be purchased from chicheros, or street vendors, 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.
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 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 batida, another name for any drink containing a fruit puree. Locally, "chicha fuerte" refers to the fermented chicha. 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 packets as a powder-artificially flavored drink.
- In and around Cuzco, strawberries are added to chicha in season to make frutillada.
- In Puno, chicha can be found made from quinoa. It is very pale in color, almost white.
- In Ayacucho, chicha de siete semillas is a thick, rich-tasting chicha made from maize, wheat, barley, and garbanzo beans.
- In the town of Huanta, chicha de molle is prepared from the small, reddish seeds of the molle tree. It is very rare and perhaps the most delicately flavored chicha.
There is a long scene in the famous novel Moby Dick, set in a Lima drinking establishment, involving a group of people sitting at a table telling stories and drinking chicha.
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.
- In Venezuela chicha or chicha de arroz is made of boiled rice, milk, sugar and chopped ice; it has the consistency of eggnog. It is usually served as a sweet, refreshing beverage with ground cinnamon and/or condensed milk toppings.
In most large cities, chicha can be offered by street vendors, commonly referred to as Chicheros. 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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