chicha

Chicha is a beverage popular in many Latin American countries and comes in fermented and non-fermented versions. It is usually made from corn, but occasionally, fruits such as strawberries are also used.  While in Lima, NaGo and I drank chicha morada, which is a non-alcoholic chicha made from purple corn. It looks like grape juice and reminds one of cider since its other ingredients are sugar, lime juice, fruits (pineapple, apples…) and spices (cloves, cinnamon…).

From Lima we moved on to Cusco for a couple of days to acclimatize before starting our hike to Machu Picchu. On our way to the starting point of the two-day Inca trail, we spent a day in Ollantaytambo. It’s located in the Sacred Valley or the Urubamba region of Peru. Surrounded by mountains and located next to a river, it is a very pretty and mostly sleepy town, if you ignore the tourist-prone areas.

Hotel Munaytika was our abode for the night. Our room was pretty basic and uninteresting. But the hotel had a very nice garden, full of tomato and apricot trees and red Kantu flowers.

A chef in Cusco had recommended that we try fermented chicha in Ollantaytambo, especially the strawberry one. Since we had most of that evening free, we decided to walk around the main plaza and look for chicha. But sadly, none of the touristy restaurants had it on their menus. Hoping for better luck in the by-lanes, we kept walking. After around 30 minutes or so, we came across a group of men, old and young, merrily chit-chatting after what seemed like a day of hard construction work. They were drinking a creamy-white beverage out of large plastic take-out type containers. Given how happy and excited they were, it clearly was alcohol. 🙂

Luckily, NaGo (who speaks Spanish) asked them if it was chicha that they were drinking (yes, it was!) and where we could get some from. They told us to walk a few more blocks and look for a red sign. How ambiguous! Anyhow, we went ahead and came across this:

We later learnt that this is how chicherias can be identified in the Sacred Valley region. Every town has its own custom; in Sacred Valley they use a red plastic bag or cloth tied to a bamboo pole sticking out of the door. In fact, later that evening we saw some landscape paintings by local artists that had these red bamboo poles in them!

Glad to have finally found one, we went inside the chicheria and it was the cutest little drinking joint I’ve ever come across. There were 8 people inside, 4 men and 4 women…how wonderful! I grew up in India and it is impossible for me to imagine women drinking inside an Indian country liquor shop, so this was a very pleasant surprise. The owner of this chicheria was an old woman who was wearing a large blue check skirt, and was sitting next to a big chomba that is used to both brew and store the alcohol.

Since strawberries were out of season in Ollantaytambo, she only had corn chicha. We took a small glassful, that cost 1 sol. It was very mild and tasted like fermented miso soup to me. I would like to drink it again for sure. The owner was very generous and kept refilling everyone’s containers. We only had one though. And since NaGo didn’t like the taste much, I gladly drank it all :-).

It was a peaceful, dimly lit, cosy place where people from the village came to relax after their workday was over. There were no tourists around, the sun was setting outside and it somehow reminded me of my grandfather’s village. I guess villages everywhere feel the same at that hour. There were occasional conversations that I couldn’t understand, but I didn’t mind. Even though we were outsiders and came from completely different worlds, I think those 8 other people didn’t mind our company. I could’ve sat there for hours. It was one of the most memorable experiences of this trip and something I will always cherish.

Chicheria photo credits: NaGo

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