It’s only fitting that the discussion of my excursion to Perú start with a review of the country’s liquid sustenance. From mate de coca to chicha, throughout our exploration we imbibed on the numerous tasty beverages the country presented to us.
Chicha’s Peruvian and South American roots are centuries old and as the tradition continues it can currently be purchased anywhere from the street corners to the grocery stores. In Perú, one of the main base ingredients is corn, often white or blue, which is germinated or masticated at the start of the brewing process to release the sugars from the corn required for fermentation. The fermented variations contain an alcohol content lower than that of a typical America beer.
The more we encountered chicha we soon realized that this beverage, at least it’s “homebrew” and thicker, less juice like, varieties is not consumed in a leisurely manner while bellying up to the bar for an evening of conversing with friends. Conversely, it seems to fill the purpose of a quick meal or filling of sustenance and is often drunk quickly, if not chugged.
The chicha we tried was thicker in consistency than a beer with a very foamy head that is present long after the liquid was consumed. A bit of nutmeg was sprinkled on top of the beverage and in some variations chunks of fruit were also found in the cups, in our case raspberries. The taste is rather earthy with hints of straw and corn and the fruit adds a bit of sweetness. The aftertaste was a bit sour which lingers on the palate for a while.
Additionally, chicha can be purchased in grocery stores and bodegas throughout the country in the same manner one would buy a bottle of Coca-Cola. This variation, seemingly popular amongst kids, was very sweet and noticeably thicker than normal cola, somewhat like a thin syrup. In the end, one bottle was enough for me as its sweetness was a bit too much for my preference. What seemed to be a similar homebrew variation of this chicha is also available from street vendors and bodegas in most places, however, we did not try that varietal.
Tea is as popular and common as chicha in Perú, more specifically tea made from coca leaves. Mate de coca is prepared either by steeping whole coca leaves or a standard tea bag in boiling water. Its taste is similar to chamomile tea with a hint of mint, is refreshing and mild and smells like a field of grain in the summer after rain. Aside from being a really good tea, it also helps remedy altitude sickness and indigestion.
Coca tea would also be brewed with mint leaves with my favorite preparation being what was served to us during our home-stay on Lake Titicaca. As a general rule of thumb in Perú, if a beverage or entrée comes with the option of “mixto”, take that route as it was more often than not a glorious combination of ingredients. In this case that was no exception, little rivaled drinking tea prepared this way, out of a clay cup, watching the señora of the house stoke the fire in front of blackened adobe walls in preparation for her next meal.
Like any of my jaunts across the face of this earth, obligatory nightly refreshments are the cheap national beers. On average of 5 to 6 Soles, about 2 bucks, with one Sole being devoted to the rental of your bottle, refunded upon it’s return, one of these 620 ml beers could be purchased. Per usual, these beers were pretty standard for the course, but at the end of the day were always a welcomed refreshment and an artifact of nostalgia serving as a reminder to journeys past.
A Pisco Sour is the national drink of Perú. I think I would be hard pressed to name the national beverage of America. I doubt one even exists. Anyway, Pisco is a grape brandy and a Pisco Sour is a beverage made from said brandy, egg whites, lime juice, sugar (or simple syrup) and ice. Shaken together a fluffy foam tops the light green drink. Be not afraid of the ice or raw egg white as there is enough alcohol in this beverage to kill off any germs, or so I told myself. Some were a bit heavy on the alcohol taste, others were made to perfection with copious amounts of fresh lime juice. What probably could become an addictive combination of sour and sweet. The closest drink that comes to mind to compare this to is a margarita and in my opinion can only be said in its lesser forms as the sour is far less tart than a margarita.
Finally, as a wild card at our last ceviche stop in Lima we were given an unidentifiable hot beverage which was not photographed. Served extremely hot on a very hot Lima summer day, this “tea” containing a few very small slices of green which tasted like cilantro, was either fish broth or seaweed broth. Its aroma was quite pungent and its taste, although not as harsh, took some getting used to. The cilantro was a nice compliment to the overall flavor and I probably would have savored this beverage more than I did had it been a cool dreary day.
Update: How the hell can one go to Perú, take copious amounts of photos, see some of the world’s most important archeological sites, indulge on the native cuisine and not mention Inca Cola? This guy did. Inca Cola, nectar of the gods and supposedly more popular than Coca-Cola in Perú is a soda found nationwide. A clear neon-yellow color produced nowhere in the natural world, this beverage tastes like liquidized bubble gum. Almost a clone of the taste of a bubble gum I chewed while a kid, the brand name of which I cannot remember. Strangely, I would like another.