It's Chicha Time

If you drive through the Ecuadorean countryside at night, you may notice a red light in a window or the doorway of a home, which usually means the owners are selling homemade chicha: a fermented beverage popular in the Andes since the days of the Incas.

Sometimes considered a beer, though it lacks carbonation, chicha -- the Spanish pronunciation is chee-cha -- is made and consumed by indigenous groups across the Americas. It can be brewed from various fruits and vegetables, but in the Andes it is usually made from yellow corn, and sometimes called chicha de jora.

To make chicha, corn kernels are soaked in water until they germinate, then are boiled and fermented for several days, usually in large clay vessels. The result is a milky yellow liquid, sweet at the beginning of fermentation and becoming sour as it progresses. The alcohol content increases the longer the liquid is fermented, but it never gets any stronger than beer.

Chicha is used in Andean indigenous rituals as a sort of holy water that is drunk, and it's copiously consumed during traditional village festivals (though it's being steadily replaced by beer). It is also given to visitors as an act of respect, and if you are offered an earthenware cup of the beverage upon arriving at an Ecuadorean village, Emily Post would probably recommend that you drink it whether you like it or not.

If you visit an indigenous village in the Oriente, you may be given chicha made from cassava, a tropical tuber known as yuca in Spanish. The cassava chicha is thicker and doesn't have much flavor, but that doesn't keep folks in the rainforest from consuming it regularly. Also in the Oriente, you are expected to place your cup upside down, on the ground, when you've finished your chicha.

If you travel to other parts of Latin America, you'll find that the word chicha is also used to refer to nonalcoholic fruit drinks. In Peru, a traditional beverage is chicha morada, made by boiling purple corn, pineapple rinds, and an applelike fruit called membrillo; it's especially popular with children because it leaves the tongue and lips lavender.

The uncertainty created by the existence of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages with the same name is sometimes clarified by using the term chicha fuerte (strong chicha) to distinguish the alcoholic beverage. And to make things just a little more confusing, there is the popular Latin American idiomatic expression "ni chicha, ni limonada," which translates as "neither chicha nor lemonade," and means about the same thing as "neither fish nor fowl." Now, put that in your cup and drink it!

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