Chicha morada is a traditional Peruvian beverage made from purple/black maize, fruit, and spices. Here’s our fermented spin on this cultural treasure.
“Chicha” is a Spanish word with multiple meanings. In Latin America, the word is predominantly used to refer to various types of maize-based beverages, some alcoholic, some not. (Point of reference: in the US, we call maize “corn,” but in most of the rest of the world, corn is a general term which means grain, generically.)
Maize (Zea mays) was originally domesticated from wild teosinte about 9,000 years ago in Mexico. From there, it soon spread north and south, becoming a staple crop for multiple cultures and civilizations throughout South, Central, and North America.
In addition to food, there’s also a rich history of maize being used to make fermented, alcoholic beverages — from the Inca Empire in South America to the Pueblo cultures of New Mexico.
These “chichas” served important social and cultural functions, from solidifying family and communal bonds to playing central roles in religious ceremonies. In Incan culture (and likely elsewhere) chichas were also used as both financial currency and for establishing social status.
Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project notes that even the Incan gods enjoyed drinking a good chicha:
“At the Incan capital of Cuzco, the king poured chicha into a gold bowl at the navel of the universe, an ornamental stone dais with throne and pillar, in the central plaza. The chicha cascaded down this “gullet of the Sun God” to the Temple of Sun, as awestruck spectators watched the high god quaff the precious brew.”
Today, chicha is still hugely popular in Latin America. You can expect each town — or even family — to have their own unique chicha recipes depending on the type of maize, fruit, spices, and other ingredients produced in the area.
Chicha morada versus chicha de muko
- chicha morada is more regional (the Andes Mountains and Peruvian Amazon) whereas chicha de muko has a broader geographical footprint;
- chicha morada is typically a cooked, non-alcoholic beverage whereas chicha de muko is alcoholic;
- chicha morada is made from dark purple-black maize cultivars whereas chicha de muko can be made from pretty much any color or variety of maize;
- chicha morada is typically cooked and served same-day whereas chicha de muko is typically fermented for a week or more;
Oh, and one final difference: saliva. Yep, spit. The first step in making traditional chicha de muko is chewing the maize or corn meal until it’s saturated with saliva. The enzymes in human saliva convert the cornstarch into fermentable sugar.
Creating Chicha Tyrana
The Tyrant and I love making new foods and beverages using our own home-grown or foraged ingredients. Over the past few years, we’ve grown a type of maize that’s so dark purple it appears nearly black due to the high concentration of anthocyanin compounds. (This is the same antioxidant that gives color to blueberries, blackberries, aronia, and other similarly colored fruit.)
Without a genetic analysis, it’s hard to say exactly what maize cultivar we’re growing, but we’ve seen it referred to as ‘Kulli corn’, ‘Maize Morado’, and ‘Black Incan Corn’ by various seed companies. (Our original seed came from Baker Creek which called it ‘Black Incan Corn’).
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This maize cultivar is fast-growing and vigorous, maxing out at about 8′. Each plant produces 1-2 large ears which inevitably jut out of the husks when mature. Smaller secondary ears are also produced, and these are best used young for pickling or chopping as a veggie into cooked dishes while the cob is still tender.
We decided this would be the year to make our own chicha morada using some of our purple maize. Caveats:
- We wanted to harness the health and flavor benefits of a light fermentation, rather than a purely cooked recipe.
- We didn’t want to sit around chewing the maize for hours to make a muko.
Thus, with garden-fresh ingredients, we created our own hybrid chicha morada, aka Chicha de Tyrana, named in honor of her holiness, The Tyrant. (Interestingly, genetic testing revealed that a large chunk of The Tyrant’s DNA came from the region of Chihuahua in Mexico, so perhaps this is why she’s been thirsting for chicha.)
Chicha de Tyrana ingredients:
- purple maize (from our garden)
- coriander (our garden)
- fig leaves (our garden)
- purple basil (our garden)
- pears (mom’s garden – thanks mom!)
- pineapple (store bought since our potted plants aren’t fruiting now)
- honey (our hive)
- citric acid (store bought since our potted citrus isn’t ripe for a few more months)
Secondary flavorings in most “traditional” chicha morada recipes are cinnamon, cloves, and lemon juice. Since all three ingredients are native to southern Asia, it’s safe to assume that these ingredients were not included in traditional pre-colonial chicha morada recipes. The same goes for sugarcane/sugar used to sweeten most chicha morada recipes – sugar cane is native to tropical regions of Asia, not the Americas.
So we set out to make a lightly fermented chicha morada flavored as much as possible by our own garden. The recipe turned out wonderfully. Rich, nuanced, effervescent, beautiful, and refreshing.
1. Cook the maize, cob and all.
Let’s start by making clear that you can make this recipe using dry purple corn/maize or corn meal you get from a store. You don’t have to grow or use your own fresh purple maize. We happened to have it, so that’s what we used.
Dry corn or corn meal will weigh less than fresh corn which contains water, so you could use a bit less and still get good results. Regardless, you don’t want to just dump raw, uncooked corn into your ferment. Instead, you want to cook it first to help break down the starches and release that beautiful purple color right out of the gates.
Our purple maize also has a gorgeous purple, flavorful interior cob so we chopped each ear into chunks and cooked it cob and all. More flavor and color!
We put the chopped maize into a large pot, added 15 cups of water (enough to cover the maize), and coriander seeds. Then we brought the pot to a boil, turned down the heat and simmered for one hour.
We let the pot cool down to almost room temperature before going to the next step. This purple corn concoction is the base of our chicha morada/chicha Tyrana recipe.
2. Other flavorings – raw or cooked?
Depending on what ingredients you use, you may have to do a bit more cooking before you start fermenting. Case in point: the fig leaves and purple basil we used in our recipe.
The flavors of basil volatilize at high temperatures or prolonged cooking, so we didn’t want to cook them with the corn. We weren’t sure how well fig leaf flavor would hold up over an hour of cooking either. So, we cooked these two ingredients separately in four cups of the finished corn “broth” we made in step 1.
We cooked these leaves over medium heat for about 15 minutes, then let them cool to room temp before straining out the leaves.
Why not just add these leaves to the ferment? You could, but leaves tend to go from imparting good flavor to imparting unpleasant vegetal flavors in ferments at unpredictable points. So we didn’t want to risk it.
Frankly, by the end of the fermentation, it was very hard to detect the flavors of the fig leaves or basil. (We didn’t do A/B testing or have a control, so it’s hard to say how the flavor would differ without these ingredients.) If you really want these flavors to show up strong, perhaps you could do a simple syrup reduction and add them AFTER the ferment has completed.
The coriander seeds didn’t show up in the flavor of the liquid, but the individual seeds plumped up and were infused with flavor. These seeds were wonderful added a few at a time to each glass when serving.
All the other fresh ingredients (pear, pineapple, honey) were added raw to the ferment. The pears, pineapple, and honey also naturally contain many of the beneficial wild microbes needed to kick-start fermentation.
Bottom line: if you’re going off-script/recipe with your ingredients, think about what you’re using, what role they play, and how best to use them (raw or cooked) in your chicha.
Many people are unnecessarily scared by fermented foods. Frankly, this phobia isn’t moored in biological reality.
Fermented foods are actually much SAFER than raw foods if you follow fermentation protocols/best practices. The process of fermentation:
- kills off any pathogenic microbes,
- breaks down naturally occurring anti-nutrients in foods,
- boosts nutrient levels, and
- fills the ingredients chock full of beneficial microbes, aka probiotics.
For this recipe, you’ll only need the following materials:
- a large 2-5 gallon non-reactive glass or metal container/fermentation crock (don’t use plastic);
- a linen cloth to cover the top;
- a large stirring spoon.
Once cooled to room temperature, we poured the pot of cooked maize + strained fig/basil liquid into our glass fermentation vessel. Then we added chopped pineapples (skin and all), chopped pear (skin and all), honey, and *citric acid.
*Citric acid (or fresh lemon juice) is essential to bump up the initial acidity levels which helps inhibit unwanted microbes while also balancing out the sweet flavors. Once all the ingredients are combined, there should be a nice tang to the flavor from the citric acid.
Given the large quantity of fruit and maize, we added enough water to make sure the ingredients were submerged (about 2 additional cups).
From there, we started vigorously stirring our chicha for about 1 minute 3x per day, or every 8 hours. You can stir more, but don’t stir less. You also want to taste a teaspoon full of your chicha at each stirring to monitor flavor development.
At Day 3, the fermentation in our chicha morada became very active, with lots of visible CO2 bubbles from the respiring microbes. (Same process that makes beer bubbly.)
At day 4.5, we split our chicha batch in half. One half was strained and refrigerated (to arrest fermentation) while the other half was allowed to continue to develop to see how long it could go before developing off flavors. The half batch we let continue got quite dry and lost a lot of the fruit notes on Day 6, so next time we make this recipe, we’ll know not to push fermentation that long.
The longer the fermentation time, the higher the alcohol content. Regardless, you’re unlikely to produce anything beyond the alcohol content of a low-gravity beer, maybe 4-6% ABV, with this recipe.
Here again, taste testing is important at each stir. That’s because you get to decide when your fermented chicha morada/chicha Tyrana is done, meaning just right for your taste preferences.
When that moment comes, strain out the solids, and put the liquid in canning jars or swing-top bottles, then refrigerate immediately. Warning: sealed jars/bottles left at room temp will explode.
Once bottled and refrigerated, your chicha Tyrana will stay good for at least a month. However, this is still a living drink that will continue to very slowly ferment even under cold temperatures, which means it will get drier and less fruity over time. Drink sooner than later.
4. Save those strained ingredients – and other serving tips.
The pineapple and pear chunks we added to our chicha turned purple and had a great flavor when the fermentation was complete. No need to toss them.
You can eat them as a fermented fruit salad. Or you can add them in the drink or as a garnish when you serve your chicha.
If you used corn on the cob, you could remove the fermented kernels with a knife or by hand and come up with some creative uses for them as well. They’re essentially lacto-fermented corn at this point.
When serving your chicha morada/chicha Tyrana, we recommend adding:
a. Citrus – A squeeze of fresh citrus juice: lemon, lime, orange… Any citrus will do. We used some of our homegrown Australian blood limes since they’re the first of our potted citrus trees to have some ripe fruit.
b. Fermented or fresh fruit – Remember those fermented pineapple and pear chunks that turned purple? You can add them to each glass of chicha morada when serving. Or you can use fresh fruit if you prefer.
c. Fermented coriander seeds – Those once-hard and dry coriander seeds are now soft and full of flavor. We added a few to each glass when serving and they add an intense flavor pop, even if they didn’t infuse much flavor into the overall drink.
With these tips in mind, let’s move on to the recipe!
Fermented chicha morada (aka chicha Tyrana)
A fermented purple maize-based beverage inspired by the Peruvian classic, chicha morada.
- 3 lbs fresh purple/black maize, chopped cob and all (you can use less if using dried kernels or corn meal)
- 17 cups water
- 1/2 pineapple (organic), chopped with skins left on
- 2 pears (organic), chopped with skins left on
- 6 fig leaves, chopped (or more, as desired)
- 3 cups chopped purple basil, loosely packed
- 2 cups honey
- 2 tbsp coriander seeds (depending on how much coriander flavor you want to show up, you may want to add much more than 2 tbsp)
- 4 tsp citric acid (or 2 cups fresh lemon juice)
Put chopped corn cobs and coriander seeds into large pot on stove and cover with 15 cups water. Bring pot to boil, then reduce heat and simmer (3 on our stove) for at least one hour, stirring occasionally to prevent corn from sticking to bottom of pot. Remove from heat and let cool. Remove 4 cups of finished maize water, and put in smaller pot with chopped fig and basil leaves. Cook over medium heat for about 15-20 minutes or until the fig and basil flavors have infused. Add fig-basil infusion back into cooled maize water. (*Alternately, you could make fig-basil infusion at completion of fermentation before adding in order to have these flavors come through stronger.)
Place all ingredients (including chopped fruit, citric acid, honey) into large non-reactive glass, ceramic, or stainless steel fermentation vessel in a cool dark place in your home (no warmer than 72°F and out of direct sunlight). Cover vessel with linen cloth and afix with string or rubber band.
Stir mixture vigorously for at least one minute every 8 hours. Taste a small amount of the chicha each time you stir to monitor its progress. By Day 3, you should start to notice bubbles forming and the fermentation becoming more active by the hour. We think this fermented chicha morada recipe tastes best between Day 4-5. When done, strain and remove solids. Put strained liquid into canning jars or swing-top bottles and refrigerate immediately. Do NOT store at room temperature or the bottles will explode. Use your refrigerated chicha within 1 month.
We hope you enjoy this fermented chicha morada recipe! Remember to pour a small amount of your chicha batch on to the soil as an offering to her holiness, The Tyrant, so she can quaff her rightful share of this precious brew. (She prefers the chicha be poured from a golden bowl or chalice.)
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