by Jessie Maguire
Chicha is a traditional, fermented, Bolivian drink made from maize (AKA corn). Although chicha can refer to both non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks across Central and South America, the methods vary by country.
Artisanal, Bolivian chicha is carefully made using an intricate, ancient technique passed from generation to generation. It’s served in chicherias: halls where simple tables and chairs are set out onto a mud or concrete floor. The chicha is served in buckets and drunk using a tutuma, a cup made from half a hollow fruit from the Crescentia tree.
If you want to experience this ancient, traditional custom, get yourself down to Tarata and sample some of the best chicha in the Cochabamba region! The raw materials used to make Tarata chicha come from fertile soils and are cultivated organically.
This week, I interviewed Dennis Salazar Gonzales, who runs artisanal chicha-making courses in Tarata that you can attend. Check it out!
Q: So tell me about yourself Dennis. What’s your background?
A: I’m a graphic designer by profession and studied photography. I’m in a photography group called Claro Oscuro. Last year we did art exhibitions, interventions and workshops with kids in Tarata and Cochabamba. So I have an artistic background.
I’ve also done similar work abroad. In 2012, I was able to travel to the USA, where I gave photography workshops to children from disadvantaged families from all over NYC. I was there for four months. Then I was worked at El mARTadero, and later opened a cultural bar here in the city called Simon Bolivar. I also work on photography projects, and take groups out trekking in the mountains around Tarata.
Q: So you’re from Tarata?
A: Yes, all of my family is. I run a center there called Centro Alternativo Taratara. It’s name comes from a tree – the place was full of tara trees in the past. It’s endemic to Tarata.
The center is like a base, but we do activities all around Tarata and the surrounding areas. We hold workshops on how to make artisanal charangos (a small Andean guitar), woven and other fabrics, ceramics and chicha.
Q: Is it difficult to make chicha?
A: Well the process is quite complicated, and long. We do it the traditional way. We were able to find some huge ceramic crocks. They’re the best vessel to use to make sure the corn ferments really well. We also bought a bronze paila (plate or bowl) that’s about 3cm thick. It’s about 200 years old, from colonial times.
The paila and the ceramic crocks keep the temperature just right. That’s very important. If you put the chicha ingredients into plastic or metal containers, the flavor is completely different.
Q: What sort of ingredients is it made with?
A: Well first of all you need to find the best quality corn. The chicha in Tarata is considered some of the best in the world, because of the raw materials and the careful procedure.
This is another great thing about our center and the Tarata area: all the corn that is grown in the region is organic. It comes from the mountains, and the Río Caine, on the border of Potosí and Cochabamba, far into the mountains. The waterbed is huge and they have a lot of water, so the corn production is amazing.
The farming families that sell their corn in Tarata produce small quantities. Then they come down to the town with their harvest and deliver it to the ladies who make chicha.
So the first thing you need to do is soak the corn in water. This procedure may even go back as far as the Incas. You soak it in water for about a day with wheat, which helps with the fermentation process, at a ratio of 9:1, and then you leave it in a dark area covered with a cloth. You need to wait until it germinates. The little roots start to come out. Once that happens, you have wiñapu.
Next, you dry the mix in the sun. Once it’s dry, you take it to the mill to be ground into corn flour. Then you take some boiling water and make a little volcano-shaped dough ball.
You use a tool to give this dough a smooth consistency, and then you start to step on it. With your feet!
This part used to be done with your mouth – chewing it up. But people don’t really want to do that anymore. You need a lot of saliva. This part ensures there aren’t any dry, hard bits in the dough. It’s all smooth. This dough is called muku.
Then the dough is cut into pieces and dried again. This is such an old process, and the people that really know how to do it know exactly when to go onto the next step in the process. They know how the chicha will turn out if they do something differently, from generations of experience.
The corn now forms into lumps – dried muku. You now put your muku into the paila, add water and boil it. You boil it for a certain amount of time, and then you add sugar and chancaca (molasses). People used chancaca on its own in the past, but the sugar speeds up the process.
So you make a marmalade-type mixture with this. 400 liters of it! It’s called miskh’eta, which means dulce (sweet). It’s got a marmalade consistency, and it’s very sweet. You put that into the crocks. Ours hold around 400 liters.
Then you boil some water with a little corn flour in it, to make a tea with a little corn essence in it, and you mix that with the miskh’eta and boil that. When it’s boiling away, a white froth appears in the middle. That’s called ñawi. When that’s gone, it’s ready.
This liquid then starts to separate into layers, the first layer is upis, and you have to remove that. The ñege is left on the bottom. That’s a very delicious drink! It’s the starch from the bottom. So they separate the sediment from the liquid above.
Now you have to let the liquid sit again, and then remove the sediment a second time. This time, it’s called arrope. It’s very nutritious laxative. Nothing is wasted during the chicha-making process. People from the village come and collect these by-products free of charge.
The liquid now looks like chicha, and it’s taken and put into vessels with narrow bottlenecks. It’s poured into them, and that’s when the real fermentation starts. Three more layers form: borra, the chicha, and the yeast on top.
You wait, now. In summer you have to wait for three or four days, but in winter maybe a week. And the vessels have to be covered with blankets to keep them warm if the ambient temperature isn’t high enough.
Q: So Tarata is the best place to do this?
A: Yes, because the knowledge there is passed from generation to generation. There are no secrets. If you ask, they’ll tell you how they do it. But each family has their own technique. Hearing about the process isn’t the same as seeing it. I think we’re going to do another workshop at the end of the month (Feb, 2016), but as soon as we have 8 people on the list for a workshop, we run one.
Q: Can you do this at home?
A: Yes, my uncle makes apple chicha at home, and it comes out really well. That’s a mix of apples and corn, fermented together. But you have to make it out of really good corn. There are some types of corn that don’t turn into chicha. There are special types of corn that are prepared for specific times of the year.
Kulli, is a specific type of purple corn (not api). It’s used to make chicha during special holidays. Ch’uspillo is another that looks dried, and it has really high oil content, so the drink is creamy and very delicious. Aloja is made at special times, made with a tiny type of tuna (cactus fruit), cinnamon, orange peel, pineapple peel, and cloves, Ahirampu. It’s purple. You put desiccated coconut and cinnamon on it. It’s ridiculous.
Our chicha is clean, because if it’s not fermented properly, it turns into vinegar or goes bad. The city chicha is also horrible. They use a completely different process. I can only drink the chicha in Punata and Tarata, not even in Cliza now. There are factories in Quillacollo, Cliza and Tiquipaya. They don’t do it well. With Tarata chica, you don’t get a hangover.
Q: Does it keep?
A: No, it’s meant to be served immediately. It turns to vinegar unless it’s buried in the dark, underground in vessels with no oxygen. Then it keeps.
Q: Tell me about the chicha workshops.
A: We charge 350 Bolivianos. That includes food, board and the workshop. Traditional food, made with local ingredients. It lasts for three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, generally, and it’s held in Spanish. You make the chicha, and then you come back later to taste it! Our doors are open if you want to come.
Q: What about the other activities you offer in Tarata?
A: We work with tourists and volunteers, running workshops. We’re planning a fabric-making workshop using rustic looms and a charango-making workshop that will be available very soon.
Another big project we’re working on right now involves children from the city, taking them on tours around the historic town of Tarata, which is full of Colonial and heritage buildings. Opposite our Center in Tarata is the Instituto Tecnológico Agropecuario, which belongs to the state. They have farm animals there, and organic vegetable plots. They make marmalade, yogurt, cheese, cold meats and other products.
We are partnering with them with this project. We want the city kids to see all the animals, to show them how everything is grown and give them the opportunity to plant seeds and make their own bread, cheese or yogurt. We also want to give talks on environmental awareness and develop their team working skills. That’s the project we’re working on right now. It’s called EDS, Educación para el Desarrollo Sostenible.
We also offer living quarters to 10 music and agriculture students, and we charge a minimal amount so they are comfortable and are able to continue studying. These students come from small communities around Tarata, and a few are from little villages near La Paz, Oruro and Potosi.
We actually have 40 rooms. We want to offer 10 more rooms to volunteers, who could come to participate in the workshops and give their own workshops. We also run ceramics workshops. So there’s fabric-making, weaving, ceramics and charango-making. The ceramics workshop is in the Huayculi community, where more than 30 artisan families live.
So the 40 rooms will be split up: 10 for the students, 10 for volunteers, 10 for guests who come to stay and 10 for the children who visit from the city, with bunkbeds.
– Jessie Maguire
Fancy making chicha?
If you haven’t tried it yet, Tarata is one of the best places with the most nutritious variety.
The Educación para el Desarrollo Sostenible project will also be open to volunteers and people interested in participating very soon. For more information about this and the various courses available there, get in touch with Dennis Salazar Gonzales on Facebook, or contact him on 76441410 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Dennis for his time!
Images courtesy of Dennis Salazar Gonzales.