Thursday, November 18, 2010


North of Cuzco, as we head into the Sacred Valley of the Inka, we arrive at the ruins at Pisac.  The Inka were masters at terraced agriculture.  Maybe it's just my wine-soaked brain but these terraces, reminiscent of the Douro, make me think that there's good wine growing potential.  Alas, it's a national reserve, so they'll be no viticulture here!

Every so often, along the road from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo, you’ll see a house with a bamboo pole poking out into the street. At the end of the bamboo pole is tied a red plastic bag. The red bag (or, really, anything red at the end of the pole) means that the “chicha” is ready.

Chicha is a generic term for a homemade beverage made (usually) from corn. It’s often fermented – but not always, as I found out later to my disappointment – to yield an ABV of just 3%. It’s somewhat like the word “beer” in English. Beer is usually – but not always – made from barley and hops. But there are so many variations that it’s easy to be misled by just the name, beer. Root beer, anyone?

In Urubamba, we keep a look out for the red bag and, there it is: we stop at the Ajha Wasi Inka Bar. This chicheria is nothing fancy: a dingy room with seating for maybe a dozen or so. Out on the patio you can play the frog drinking game, where the object is to toss a metal token into a frog’s mouth (loser buys the next round).

They make the chicha here from different types of corn, which they first germinate, boil, and then ferment.

Today, there are two kinds of chicha to sample. First up, the standard version, which Peruvians have consumed for millennia. Milky yellow colour, they serve it at room temperature. Tart taste. Second is a version to which they add strawberry. Sweet.  Either way, it’s a beverage can be consumed all night without things ever getting out of hand. Before we drink, we pour a little bit on the ground as an offering to “Pachamama” (Quechan for Earth Mother).

Next door is a pen where they keep the guinea pigs.  They make a nice snack.  Not kidding...stay tuned. 

Several days later, I got a chance to try chicha morada. They make it from purple corn that’s boiled with pineapple rind, cinnamon, and clove, then mixed with sugar and lemon. Served cool. More than anything else, it reminds me of the taste of mulled wine, except chicha morada doesn’t have mulled wine’s sole redeeming feature: alcohol.

One risky aspect to drinking regular chicha is that it’s still fermenting, another natural limitation on over-indulging. Although the chicha is also available for take-out, continuing fermentation makes that tricky as well, as containers have exploded on the way home.

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