No, Andean Corn Beer Isn't Made with Spit Anymore

No, Andean Corn Beer Isn't Made with Spit Anymore

I visited the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where I'd heard a rumor we could get some chicha, the legendary Andean mountain drink traditionally made by women who chewed up corn to kick off the fermentation process.
January 19, 2017, 5:00pm

On a visit to Bolivia, I had a serious hankering for some saliva.

I dragged my partner out to the El Pueblito neighborhood in the city of Cochabamba, where I'd heard a rumor we could get some chicha, the legendary Andean mountain drink traditionally made by women who chewed up corn to kick off the fermentation process.

My partner was dubious—she doesn't drink alcohol, let alone a beverage in which someone expectorated. Fortunately, she's a good sport.

chichainbolivia_chicha pueblito

El Pueblito was the place to go for a good Friday night chicha party. All photos by Ada Kase.

"Excuse me," I approached a little old lady hawking street food. "Do you know where I can get some chicha around here?"

"Party's over there, bro," she told me (the translation is approximate), indicating that we should look around the block. We rounded the corner to find a large group of youths standing on the street, drinking and carousing. Inside a small club, a crowd writhed and grinded while gulping down rum. Some kids demanded a selfie with us.

Out in the street, people ducked in a small doorway and came out drinking a cloudy, gritty beverage. I found a middle-aged man standing back from the party, sipping from a gourd and watching the revelers. The city's iconic Cristo de la Concordia, the second-largest Jesus statue in the world, loomed on a hill overhead. The man offered me a drink.

chichainbolivia_chicha party

The youth in Cochabamba enjoy dancing and drinking, just like kids anywhere.

"Did anyone spit in this?" I asked.

"No," he told me. "No one around here makes it like that anymore." In the modern era, brewers usually just germinate the corn in water and let it ferment. How boring.

The drink was watery, and a little sour. "There are different kinds," my new friend told me. "If you want sweeter chicha you have to go to Sacaba," he said. "Get it with a plate of chicharrón."

The next day we obediently hopped in a minibus to Sacaba, a small town just up the road from Cochabamba. On the lookout for a cabaret, we accidentally found ourselves in the middle of a massive costume parade celebrating the Virgin Amparo. I felt terrible for the men in the thick fuzzy bear suits, prancing down the road in 90-degree heat. They looked primed for a heart attack. I figured I might as well join them and went looking for a giant plate of pork.

chichainbolivia_chicha dog

A stray dog waits expectantly outside a pork rind joint.

We found an unbroken row of chicha and chicharrón joints along the main highway and I gleefully ordered my meal. My ever-patient partner, who does not eat meat either, watched as I took down the sundry bits of swine. The dish included nearly every part of the animal: meat, organs, skin, plus some token chunks of corn and plantain. The only thing missing was the hoof. The chicha, for what it's worth, was indeed sweeter than my previous sample.

I hate to leave food behind but there was far too much pork for one man, and even if I had the stomach capacity I would have needed another dozen glasses of beer to wash it all down. My partner's patience only stretches so far.

Next we received information that the real place to go for the best chicha and chicharrón in the city was La Cancha market in Cochabamba, just south of all the shiny new condominium buildings financed with laundered cocaine money. We walked down a crowded street, dodging vendors and peering around for our destination. Out of nowhere, I was struck hard in the chest. As I back-pedaled into the street and regained my bearings, I saw a young man on the sidewalk, his face twisted with hate, screaming a string of "putas" and "mierdas" in our direction. I looked around for help but the other pedestrians just passed on by, barely giving the man a second glance. An old woman selling flowers on the sidewalk told us, "You'd better get out of here. That guy is crazy."

chichainbolivia_chicha chicharon

A plate of chicharron in Sacaba contains pretty much an entire pig.

My partner dragged me down the block while I feigned an attempt break free of her grasp. "Hold me back!" I yelled once a safe distance separated us from my assailant. We reached the corner and paused to figure out what the hell had just happened. When we spotted the man approaching again, not looking like he wanted to offer an apology, we quickly left the neighborhood altogether. Later we learned that glue huffing is a serious problem on Cochabamba's streets, prone to provoking delusions and aggressive behavior, among other effects.

As it turns out, chicha can refer to a lot of different beverages, made from manioc, plantains, amaranth, grapes, potatoes, or pretty much anything that can be fermented. In search of a less hazardous venue, I settled for some non-alcoholic varieties of the drink. We encountered chicha morada, a sickly sweet purple corn concoction, in a Subway restaurant. The sandwich artist insisted that she hadn't spit in it.


A tasty cup of non-alcoholic quinoa chicha on the streets of Sucre.

Lastly, in the city of Sucre we met a man named Marco, the owner of a small "restaurant" that consisted of one table outside his house. "I can get you some quinoa chicha," he told us. "My three-year-old drinks it instead of milk."

I raised my eyebrows. He assured me there was no alcohol. Marco used his grandmother's recipe, consisting of wet quinoa, rice, almonds, peanuts, and cinnamon water.

"No chewing?" I asked despondently.

No chewing.

The drink was tasty, and filling. Still, I thought it was lacking in something. I glanced about to make sure no one was looking, then dripped just a tiny bit of drool in my cup. Finally, some authenticity.