I started my hunt for chicha morada at what I assumed to be its ground zero in Cusco, Peru: El Mercado Central. But after wading through a sea of alpaca sweaters, woven backpacks, and assorted spices, I found only one stand that sold the drink.
Chicha morada is a purplish-black beverage that looks remarkably like blood. Made from boiled maíz morado (purple corn) and infused with piña (pineapple rinds), canela (cinnamon), and clavos (cloves)—and sometimes beterraga (beet), fresas (strawberries), and lima (lime) too—the drink is served fresh in street markets, upscale restaurants, and home kitchens throughout Peru. It's at once a staple of the local cuisine—basic, with few frills—and a relic that has survived centuries of colonial invasion.
According to Micaela Philippo, one of the founders of the popular Peruvian restaurant Pachamama London, there is archaeological evidence of chicha morada consumption during the Incan Empire, in 3000-2500 BC. With the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, spices may have been added to the recipe, infusing what was previously a strict formula of just purple corn and pineapple.
As I scanned El Mercado Central, an older woman dressed in traditional Andean garb sat amidst some plastic buckets containing variously colored liquids (like I said, no frills). For one Peruvian Sole (32 cents in USD), I received a generous serving of the purple liquid, confirmed to be chicha morada by two passersby. Feeling like something of a vampire with the bloody-looking elixir in my hands, I hunted down the perfect spot for my inaugural tasting experience. Upon finding some sunlit wood benches—probably intended to hold sacks of grain and not play host to a weary gringa wanderer—I laid out my mercado purchases: quinoa cookies, a fluffy llama keychain, a barrette made of tiny indigenous-looking characters, the bloody beverage.
Pretending to be some sort of chicha sommelier, I swirled the glass around, letting the aroma really filter into my nostrils. The smell was deceiving: disgustingly sweet, with the scent of pineapple rising to the top, carried up by an undercurrent of cardamom. The ceremonial mercado drinking glass seemed more fit for an ice cream sundae than for this ancient Andean drink.
(There is no corn-specific sommelier to consult on the merits of aroma, flavor, and ideal food pairings for chicha morada. But maybe this is the point—it is a drink for the people, by the people, and there's something appealingly egalitarian about that.)
I take my first gulp—or, sip, rather, as I was wary of any unwanted water bacterium entering my system. The taste is not super-sweet, and actually quite mellow: more like a melted popsicle, with a nutty aftertaste. It has a nice mouthfeel, and is particularly effective in washing down certain pesky quinoa cookies that can get lodged in one's throat.
The flavor of chicha morada is like a cross between mulled wine and Dimetapp (which is thrilling, as it was a favorite flavor of my childhood.) I disagree with existing writings that the drink "looks and tastes like a thick grape Kool-Aid," nor did I find it "a little too sweet and somehow dull." Actually, I think it's the Goldilocks of beverages: sweet, but not too sweet; spicy, but mild enough to appeal to a wide audience; and a nuanced taste, but not overly complex.
Sold amongst more muddily-colored juices, like maracuya (passion fruit) and other chichas (yuca, apple, quinoa), its crimson-vermilion hue is especially alluring. Other more enticing juices sold in the market included banana con coco (banana-coconut), pina con hierbabuena (pineapple-spearmint), and zanahoria conbetarraga (carrot-beetroot). And in bars, one can find chicha de jora, a corn beer traditionally made by chewing corn kernels and spitting them out (human saliva converts corn from a starch into a fermentable sugar.)
After my mercado experience, I stumbled upon the most lovely restaurant in all of Cusco, a vegan joint called Green Point, where chicha morada is made fresh once a week. Served in aluminum camping-grade canisters with healthy, protein-rich meals, the drink takes on an especially medicinal vibe. And indeed, this vibe is well-founded: maíz morado is an antioxidant, and the drink has long been understood to have great health benefits.
As Philippo explains, "The anthocyanin pigment that gives it the rich, regal, purple colour is a natural anti-inflammatory, slows down cell aging and also regulates blood flow." So while the purple corn doesn't give the drink any specific taste, it adds color and health as a base for tasting mulled fruit and spices. A raw sugar crystallized with honey, Chancaca, is often added to sweeten the drink (particularly chicha morada of the bottled, supermarket variety.)
Maíz morado is mostly grown in Northern Peru. But with the invasion of greedy multinational corporations and the damaging effects of climate change, its production is at risk. Peruvian restaurants abroad like Pachamama in London source their corn directly from Peru, and make innovative use of traditional ingredients. (Pachamama's Chicha Morada Pisco Sour is made with pisco, egg white, and lime juice, but with added amargo chuncho bitters.)
Some say Peru is experiencing a "gastronomical boom" right now. Chef Hector Solis points out the ridiculousness of this notion, as a strong culinary tradition has always been at the core of Peruvian cultural identity. The demographics of Peruvian society are arguably one of the most mixed in the world: indigenous communities like the Aymara and Quechua exist in tandem with a strong Afro-Peruvian population and generations of Peruvians of Chinese and Japanese descent. As Gastón Acurio of Astrid y Gaston fame put it: "We are a biodiverse country and a multicultural society, and that is the perfect example of what Peruvian food is."
Bolivians make a drink quite like chicha morada called api morada, but it's served hot, with a thicker texture, and with considerably more spices. In Chile, there are many Peruvian immigrants, and so by proxy, many available options for Peruvian cuisine. Though chicha morada is not sold in the mercados of Santiago and was actually banned from one city in the North (San Pedro de Atacama, where the local municipality decided it is not an authentic Chilean drink), it can be found at restaurants throughout the country with artisanal cocktail menus. In Santiago, these restaurants can be found mostly in hip Barrios Bellavista and Lastarria.
The production of chicha morada throughout South America and in culinary hubs like London and New York is an excellent thing. Maíz morado has survived as a crop for hundreds and thousands of years, and no real original recipe for chicha morada exists.
As a result, the drink has crossed borders carved out by colonial invaders from Spain, parts of Europe, and the US, and is now embedded into multifarious cuisines around the globe.
Fun fact: one can now order purple corn kernels on Amazon (that were, interestingly enough, grown in Ohio). Some would say that's globalization at its finest.