A word on the photos in these posts on Peru. Sorry! They were taken with my iPhone 4, often with poor lighting conditions. I hope you’ll forgive me.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the purpose of our trip to Peru was to celebrate a milestone birthday for my husband. That’s okay, because I had a secret agenda that was on par with the stated purpose: it was to find and try some new-to-me ferments. Peru’s best-known ferment is chicha de jora (CHEE-cha day HOR-ah), a type of beer made from malted corn rather than barley and hops, and I’d never seen it in the US so I desperately wanted to try some and get my hands on an authentic recipe.
In our research, we learned that the key to finding chicha was to look for buildings marked with red flower-tipped poles. Those “flowers” turned out to be plastic bags, and we were surprised by just how many thresholds throughout the Sacred Valley had red plastic bags on poles. For me, that was a pretty cool sign that lots and lots of people were fermenting. And indeed, throughout the Sacred Valley, we saw women coming out of countless homes and small bars with giant, plastic, coca-cola bottles filled with frothy, corn-colored liquid. After some debate on which one to visit, we took the recommendation of a local we met at a cafe in the town and headed into what looked like a flower-filled, dirt courtyard through an old wooden gateway. From the outside, it looked pretty and idyllic. It was not.
Inside, all of my rules on sanitary food conditions were actively being broken. There were buckets of foamy liquid on the ground (the chicha we were about to drink), with wet, dirty rags hanging out of them onto the courtyard floor, half-eaten dishes of food sitting out, covered in the flies that were buzzing everywhere, and the chicha-maker herself had so much dirt caked onto and under her nails that I was obliged to look around for the vegetable patch (there wasn’t one). Did I mention that the saliva of the maker is sometimes used to help the starches in the corn to malt? Well, it is. So really, you’d like the person spitting in your drink to at least look clean. But sometimes you just have to swallow your fear (or common sense, or disgust, or a stranger’s corn saliva) and do what your passion requires.
So we drank the enormous glasses of chicha, and its strawberry-infused cousin, fruitillada, which were quite tasty; a little sour, a little sweet, a touch alcoholic. The texture was very viscous, which would probably have been more pleasant to drink if I hadn’t been wondering whether or not this particular chicheria used the saliva method.
We struck up a conversation with a few local laborers enjoying an afternoon brew. They asked us how we liked the Peruvian cuisine and we were happy to answer honestly that it had been fantastic. I felt good that those guys were there, drinking what we were drinking, and I felt confident that the fermentation process would do what it does, and destroy the pathogenic bacteria that were undoubtedly present.
That night, as a mighty, rumbling battle began to rage inside me I felt like an idiot. Why had I risked serious illness for just a taste of something new? Was trying chicha really worth losing valuable travel days in Peru? By the next morning, we knew that the grumbles had been noisy but nothing more. Both my husband and I were fine. We went on to drink chicha in other villages and cities, but since both the spaces and the makers at those spots were clean and tidy, our guts were never tested that way again. As my husband put it once the danger had passed: If I’d had any doubts about the power fermented foods had to protect our guts, they were gone after surviving that chicha.
Have you ever eaten a ferment you weren’t so sure about and lived to tell the tale?
A version of this post originally appeared on FoodRiot.com