Meridith Kohut / The New York Times

March 27, 2020

Food Ethics | Growing Up With Chicha de Jora

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I ran behind my mother as she walked toward the front door. I followed her knowing she was headed to the market. She looked back at me and smiled; she knew I never missed Saturday grocery shopping. She held my hand tight as I jumped around, the sun guiding our path to the market. As we stepped on rocks to cross the train rails, I finally saw the women selling chicha morada (sweet purple corn drink) by the entrance.

Once we arrived my mom started bargaining for half an hour until she tired most of the market out. After, we walked towards the center of the market where I noticed the aji panca, Peruvian red peppers, and my mother immediately began bargaining again. My eyes scanned the crowded market looking for the small stall where the chicha de Jora, a maíz drink, man usually stood. I only knew him as the Cuzceño (from Cuzco, Perú) man who sold my favorite drink, but he was like family to me, always kind and generously giving me a cup. Chicha de Jora is a muddy brown color, and isn’t too sweet. I sat on a wooden stool as I waited for my mom to notice my whereabouts. As soon as she noticed where I was, she walked in my direction, smiling, and sat beside me.

The usual conversation started as the man described the freshness of his product, and how his family had just brought maíz a few days ago. The man always reassured my mother that there was no added alcohol in his homemade chicha de Jora, sin curar. He was one of many who made chicha de Jora, but what was unique was that his family harvested all the ingredients themselves. He also had enormous jars of barro which he used for fermenting his maíz.

I smiled to myself as my mother and I listened. He certainly had a quality product, and I loved the drink he made. He and my grandmother were the only two people I knew well who still made chicha de Jora. My mother ordered three more bottles to take home, and I sipped my cup happily as we got ready to leave. He probably thought our family loved chicha de Jora considering how much my mother ordered; however, she was not a big fan of chicha de Jora and neither was my sister — they both said it tasted like a spoiled drink. On the other hand, my grandfather, brother and I loved it so much that every time the man was there selling his chicha de Jora, I would buy some or urge my mother to buy some. My grandmother made chicha de Jora but only on my grandfather’s birthday, and once on my birthday when I begged her. She was hesitant, insisting that chicha de Jora should only be made on special occasions.

On my ninth birthday I begged my grandmother to make chicha de Jora for me, and she finally agreed. She surprised me by showing me the drink as it was fermenting. The bubbling in the jar of barro looked like a chemical reaction which fascinated me, but I never asked what was happening. I didn’t really understand what fermentation was. My grandmother would not have been able to explain it and so would have taught me how to make it so that I could understand.

This drink brings me back to my childhood, and I recently started questioning the importance of all of these drinks in my family. I asked my father, and he said that my mother’s parents were the ones who introduced me specifically to chicha de Jora, but that most of our family drank it during special occasions. My grandfather’s birthday tradition was to have chicha de Jora on the table, and growing up I came in close contact with chicha de Jora during these celebrations.

My father explained that chicha de Jora was a drink that can be traced back to the Incan Empire; a drink made during the Inti Raymi (God of the Sun festival), making this drink very important. He said that during mid-June my grandparents would try to return to Pomacocha to be there for the celebration and help in the preparations.  The celebration of Inti Raymi took place on the 24th of June, and the main meals present were chicha de Jora and pachamanca.

Every time I think about what my grandparent’s favorite food might be, I instantly associate them with maíz (various types like choclo, cancha serrana y maíz de Jora), queso and a few grains as needed. My grandparents are simple people, especially when it comes to what they eat on a regular basis. I used to only eat choclo (white corn), and I never even saw yellow corn until the first time I moved to the United States. I asked my grandparents about it, and as it turned out they grew various types of corn in their chacra. My grandfather said there was not much monetary exchange, but there was constant food exchange between neighbors. They would exchange corn for cheese or vice versa depending on their needs.

Corn to my grandfather was a sacred food, it needed to be present at every meal either in the form of cancha or choclo. However he said that chicha de Jora was particularly important for birthdays because it was an ‘alcoholic’ drink, since beer was not accessible. His tradition was to have a meal and his chicha de Jora for a toast to start the celebration of his birthday party. During birthdays, having a drink of chicha de Jora was essential, just like candles on a cake, and it was a form of celebration within the means available to him. He explained that the process of obtaining the maíz de Jora was not challenging, but the process of making it took a long time, making every birthday for him more special. He thanked my grandmother for keeping that small tradition alive when they migrated to Lima. For as long as I can remember, I saw the drink in a glass jar, a muddy light-brown color, in the middle of the table.


Isabelle Riquelme is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].