Snapshots from Ecuador: Making Chicha at the Edge of the Amazon Basin

[Photographs: David Kover]

Say the word chicha, and if they've heard of it, people immediately think of the fermented Andean beverage made of masticated corn. (Yes, the corn gets chewed up and spit out—enzymes from saliva aid the fermentation.) But, actually, depending on where you are in the Andes, chicha can be made from a variety of products, and chewing and spitting does not have to be part of the cooking process.

A freshly-harvested yuca root

During a month-long trip through Ecuador, my wife and I spent several days in a small Quichua village at the edge of the Amazon Basin. One of the highlights was the chance to watch a family cook up their local version of chicha, made from boiled yuca, a starchy tuber known in other parts of the world as manioc or cassava. It's a labor intensive process, first pulling the roots out of the ground, cleaning and boiling them, and then mashing them up before allowing them to ferment briefly.

But all that work pays off big time in the villagers' daily lives. Our local guide told us the villagers typically drink chicha at all three daily meals. In lean times, chicha may be the meal.

On first taste, I found it hard to imagine drinking that much of the stuff. The thin white liquid has a sour flavor—not the most pleasant quality for something that looks a bit like skim milk. But by my second cup, it had become almost an instantly-acquired taste. Any off-putting associations seemed to have faded, and despite the fact that chicha is served at room temperature, it proves impressively refreshing in the humid jungle weather.

Click through the slideshow to watch how chicha gets made in the Ecuadorian Amazon.