IF YOU ORDER a glass of chicha in Central or South America, what you get depends on where you are.
In Chile, you might get something like apple cider. In Venezuela, it might be chicha de arroz, a horchata-like drink made from rice and milk. But mostly, what you’ll be served across the continent is a fermented drink made from the local corn, or maize, sweetened with sugar or fruit juice and served cold.
It is this chicha — as exemplified by what you’d find in Peru — that is the quintessential version of the drink, an ancient pre-Columbian beverage that connected humans to the divine as much as it connected human to human. Chicha was essential to the Inca, for whom it was a fundamental domestic product, traded from coastland to inland, up and down the continent. It was a community necessity, a ritual libation, a necessary social lubricant to the Incas’ communication with the gods, a drink worthy of being sipped by a farmer out of a clay pot and also lapped up by the sun itself out of a gold vessel.
There is a plethora of considerations in the preparation of chicha: the variety of local corn, the type of vessel used for fermentation, even the beauty of the people who brew it can all be part of the recipe.
But outside Latin America, the thing most people remember about chicha is that it often is fermented with human saliva. Generally called chicha de jora (jora is a specific type of yellow corn), this version of the drink is often prepared by chewing said corn into masticated balls before fermenting them in a brew. The starch in corn is pretty well locked into the grain kernel and thus unavailable for fermentation on its own, so chewing allows the enzymes in your mouth to break down the starch into sugar. (Alternate methods of preparing the corn for fermentation include malting, or sprouting, by laying the corn on damp cloths to germinate.)
But it is definitely the chewing method that gets the most attention. This is partially because the idea of consuming a drink brewed from someone else’s saliva might be viscerally disturbing to many, particularly in the COVID era, but the drink retains its popularity and importance in Peru. (Another Peruvian/Amazonian drink, masato, is made from masticated yucca, and some Indigenous peoples in Brazil make a drink called cauim from chewed manioc root. Saliva as a drink starter is not unique to South America, either; there’s evidence that chewing as a way of inducing fermentation was practiced in prehistoric Europe before the introduction of malting; Finnish folklore includes mentions of making beer from bear saliva and honey; and some traditional Japanese sakes, Kuchikamizake, are made from chewed rice.)
Over time, the word “chicha” might have become more of a concept, like “beer,” but even broader, encompassing a whole range of beverages, such as the Venezuelan or Chilean versions that might or might not be alcoholic, and might or might not even be made of corn. Traditional chicha can be tricky to find as a tourist, although it’s sometimes sold as a home-brew on the street. More ubiquitous is the nonalcoholic drink chicha morada, or purple chicha, made simply by boiling the kernels and sweetening with sugar and/or fruit juice; it’s served by street vendors and easily purchased in bottles or as a powder.
The linguistic drift seems to follow chicha’s function rather than any specific descriptor or recipe: its emotional role in the heart of Latin Americans. Chicha is the people’s brew, something to be sipped with friends under a portal on a hot day or poured into a ceremonial bowl in a moment of ritual release, or to quench the metaphysical thirst of the pantheon of Mesoamerican gods. Sweet and vaguely perfumy, chicha morada can be made easily from scratch, according to this recipe from The Spruce Eats (thespruceeats.com/chicha-morada-4156888). (TL;DR: Boil roughly a pound of Peruvian purple corn in a gallon of water for an hour with a stick or two of cinnamon, some orange peel or some pineapple peel. Strain, and discard the corn and the peels. Sweeten with about ¼ cup of sugar, simple syrup or honey to taste, and add some chopped apples or pears, sangria-style, if you like.)