Chicha is a generic term for different types of drinks throughout South America. But in Peru, chicha means one of two things: Chicha morada is a sweet drink made from purple maize, cinnamon, and cloves. Frequently, it is served with lunch (as it was in the picture to the right, with ceviche and fried rice--or chaufa--all for only $1.50) [Update: The dollar has surged since I first arrived in Peru, and at current rates the meal only costs $1.21.]
Or it can mean chicha de jora, a mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented corn. Originally, Andean women made it by chewing corn kernels and then spreading the paste on the ground to dry. Naturally occurring diastase enzymes from the chica maker's mouth would cause the starch in the corn to convert to maltose, which yeast would consume, producing a slimy--almost mucus-like--cloudy beverage with 1% to 3% alcohol. Nowadays, this process is done in urns over fires in the back rooms of chicharías, without any mastication (I hope).
Chicharías, or chicha pubs, are almost always informal little rooms built onto the sides of the chicha maker's home. There are no typical bar signs advertising a chicharía; instead, a wooden pole is affixed to the door frame or awning, around which a sheet of red plastic is wrapped, resembling a sloppily folded paper rose. Chicharías are plain, sometimes squalid rooms, with little more than a couple of mismatched tables and chairs under a fluorescent light, and a loud television is usually in the corner of the room, playing wonderfully out-of-tune traditional Andean music videos. Unlike the Mexican cantina, where a woman can run into trouble if she decides to go inside, chicharías are frequented by either sex, and it is not uncommon to see women sitting alone after work, quickly gulping down a chicha or two before heading home to cook her family a meal. (Pictured to the right is a sweet chicha maker who tried to get me to drink more after allowing me to take this picture; I had already had three, so I declined.)
To say that chicha is an acquired taste is an understatement. As mentioned above, it has a mucus-like film on top, underneath its foamy head. Its smell is pungent, slightly sour, and it is sometimes served a little above room temperature, which gives it an organic, earthy, fecund quality. But it's sweet and hardy, and after an initial jolt of nausea that hit me the first time I tried it, it was surprisingly tasty. Perfect for a cold night in the Andes.
Chicha always comes in a large, dirty glass, containing a bit more than a pint. There's no alcoholic effect from just one glass; it's much too weak. You need two or three glasses to get a proper chicha buzz. Fortunately, chicha only runs 40 to 50 centavos per glass--about 15 cents. You'll have to use the bathroom several times to get through those three glasses (and bathrooms in chicharías are normally only unlit corners cut out of the concrete wall, with a hole to pee down into--if you can see it). But look on it as an exercise--a prostate exercise: According to Wikipedia, tests are being made to determine if chicha de jora acts as an anti-inflammatory on the prostate. Ah, now we can get slightly drunk and help out the old prostate. (See, Mom, I am taking care of myself!)
OK, that's it. What am I doing typing? It's chicha time!
Various chicha "flag" photos follow.
This is the outside of the chicharía where I took the photo (above) of the women. The flag is outside a long, dark alley; it's the only indication that walking up there will reward you with a frothy concoction, and not a knife in the back.