In Rio Blanco, the small village of indigenous Ecuadorians of Quichua descent that we visited, chicha is the drink of choice at almost every meal. Making a batch of the lightly-fermented beverage is a weekly tradition for most families that live there.
Harvesting the Yuca
Most households in the village—where they also grow coffee and cacao—have a plot of land dedicated to growing yuca. To harvest the tuber, they lop off the leafy part of the plant before pulling the root up from the ground. Machetes are required for this work, and it seems as if every adult member of the community wields one with skill.
Handle with Care!
The villagers trim the harvested roots with their machetes before packing them in baskets for the trip home. Folklore has it that the yuca roots must be placed in the basket pointy end outwards or your offspring will be born deformed, so careful how you shove those in there!
Villagers (or tourists that they put to work) carry these baskets via a strap that goes across their foreheads. We commonly saw locals walking back from a day of work with a basket full of some crop or other hanging down their back.
Cleaning the Yuca
The yuca gets peeled and then washed, revealing the white flesh inside.
Boiling the Yuca
The yuca is then boiled until soft, maybe a thirty-minute operation. Though the village has running water, other amenities are limited, so there are no gas or electric stoves. Cooking was done over a wood fire. The weather stays warm year-round, and so most houses have open windows around the kitchen so that no ventilation system is required to let out the smoke.
Next, we mashed the yuca. Our guide told us that all village households own a wooden trough called a batan made of the trunk of a palm tree for this purpose. The final product tastes very much liked mashed potatoes and had me looking around for a salt shaker and a stick of butter.
In order to aid the fermentation process (remember, the yuca doesn't get chewed up and then spat out in this version), the villagers add another tuber, camote, to the yuca mash. Our guide explained camote to us as a sort of white carrot and it appeared something like a smooth-skinned sunchoke, though a little Internet research translates the word as sweet potato, so the exact identity of the little root remains a mystery. In either case, our guide told us that the additional sugar from the root speeds up fermentation. Here the camote has been crushed into some water and then added to the mash.
We then placed the yuca mash in this big yellow bucket to ferment for a bit. Though some versions of chicha can contain a considerable amount of alcohol, the everyday version they enjoy in Rio Blanco doesn't ferment long enough for this to happen—this mash would remain stored in the bucket for at least 24 hours, but no longer than six days. However, if the villagers know that they have a special occasion coming up, they will make a different version of the drink that ferments for longer, producing more of an alcoholic kick.
In order to finish the chicha, water is strained through the yuca mash, producing a thin, milky liquid. Only the finest sediment from the initial mash remains in the drink. The fresh chicha that we tried, which had only fermented for a day, tasted sour and slightly sweet. A longer fermenting period results in an added yeasty flavor. Either way, it's an ideal drink for the Amazonian heat, quenching thirst better than a simple glass of water.
If you would like to visit an indigenous Ecuadorian village in the Amazon basin, it can be arranged through the community tourism group Ricancie. It is a slower-paced tourism experience than the river rafting trips usually chosen by visitors to this region, but an opportunity to get off the beaten path. Guides speak Spanish but little English.