In moments of heat in Cusco, there is no drink that slakes thirst like chicha of jora, or corn chicha. A caporal, very large glass, contains about 700 milliliters of refreshing, slightly sour drink. Its yellow color and its taste of fermented corn make your mouth feel alive and you body happy.
In Cusco, chicherías—generally rustic establishments where chicha is sold—are traditional and are filled every afternoon with locals and visitors from all over the world. People come to get to know this part of our legacy and also to enjoy the varied gastronomic offerings in them.
At lunchtime the Imperial City’s chicherías make up a varied selection of traditional dishes. Locals know them as extras to distinguish them from a full lunch which involves a soup and main dish. These are just main dishes and so extras. They are wonderful but what really gets people going is the chicha de jora and the delicious frutillada, a chicha blended with strawberries.
On November 24th of this year, Peru’s national Ministry of Culture recognized Cusco’s chicherías, along with those of several other regions, were declared cultural patrimony (heritage) of the nation in recognition of their classical role in maintaining and presenting Peru’s traditional cuisine.
These famed chicherías are scattered through the many popular neighborhoods of our city. Without going too far from the monumental core you will see on our narrow streets the famous red flag, a plastic bag on a stick, that signals chicha is there. It is the banner, the vibrating neon sign that announces the chichería is open, well stocked, and receiving the public. The red signs are placed in visible spots such as on doors, windows, and on the walls of the houses.
Some places do not put up a flag because people know the place and its hours. They just come and the place’s flag is the good flavor of its chicha and food, as well as the fine service they offer. These are more discrete and people who do not know will not realize, because of the lack of external signs, that they are chicherías and open to all.
Chicherías are found in visible locations or in more remote one near the traditional markets. It is easy to locate them. The people from different provinces and communities who work in the traditional markets come to them to satisfy their thirst at any time of the day with the holy beverage of our ancestors. There is chicha for every taste. Some are sweet, foamy, flat, and even bitter.
People come to these establishments from every social class and even religion and color. In general these places are decorated in a rustic manner with mud clay (fogones), tables, and long wooden benches. They have pictures of saints, of Andean cosmology, Peruvian cumbia singers, as well as those of huayno and chicha. In some of the chicherías they take advantage of the warm environment created by the fogones to raise guinea pigs. Sometimes they raise them in cages and other times they leave them free to roam around the kitchen on the floor.
People pass their time in the chicherías playing, joking, telling stories and anecdotes as well as drinking chicha or frutillada, and sometimes even beer. The chicha, though is what people most like. It is a natural nectar that calms thirst and makes emotions flower. People have more fun. You seldom see the caporal empty on the table. The servers are responsible for making sure it is kept full.
Good chicha varies within our city. Because of immigration from different provinces and communities, the chicha has come to have more variety. In each province they make it with different techniques. The body of the fermented corn, to color, the scent, all vary.
In order to drink a good chicha, you need to arrive before the hour of the picante, the food, which is around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Afterwards people add cañazos, distilled sugar cane alcohol, and anisados, anise flavored liqueur to get people more animated and not just to slake thirst. The point is for them to get a buzz to the rhythm of Peruvian huaynos and cumbias.
People from rural areas who work the land make chicha for their own consumption and to take with them into the field to share with family and friends. They do not make it for sale.
Now, all of this, the chicherías and picanterías (places that sell picantes or traditional food are officially part of Peru’s cultural heritage. This declaration is the most important and official way our country has found for preserving our historical memory and recognize our cuisine as well as the role of our women as protagonists our society and culture.