The chicha morada at Inka Heritage may be alcohol-free, but it drinks as much like a cocktail as a juice beverage can.
In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond discusses his theory as to why we live in a world politically dominated by Europeans and Asians instead of South Americans and Africans. The reason, he believes, is the directional orientation of the continents in question. Europe and Asia are generally east/west, and could transport the technologies of civilization throughout the realm. South America and Africa, being north/south-oriented, suffer from a shifting spectrum of climate from head to toe, and what works in Oaxaca won't fly in Huancayo.
The United States, it's worth noting, doesn't always treat its neighbors to the north and south so well. Canada is the punchline of innumerable jokes, and hockey is derided from sea to shining sea. The disdain for Mexico is, in a political season, well-documented and laborious. The mere mention of Cuba will suffice for our purposes. Meanwhile, South America is moving steadily up the ranks, with Venezuela as the new international boogeyman. Heck, you might even say that there was some careless treatment of our southern locales, New Orleans in particular, during the 2005 hurricane season.
For my part, I love all points south on the American compass. And to show a little bit of that love, I'm going to take you on a liquid tour of some of those locales, with tastes of chicory coffee, horchata, and chicha morada. All this smooshiness might seem unusual for a column that features such disdained food items as SPAM and durian, but the culinary world is due a pat on the back from me. I've had all three of these somewhat unusual beverages on multiple occasions, and they're just plain good.
It just so happens that as we move farther and farther south, the drinks get more and more unusual to the typical American palate. The first stop falls within U.S. borders, and is probably the one most people have tried once in their lives. What's odd about chicory, though, is that more people have likely tried the above-ground portion than the root. The same plant whose roots make chicory provides leaves that most people know as Belgian endive.
Chicory is possibly the oldest plant specifically known by man. Egyptians around 400 B.C. were cultivating it, and over the centuries it has been used as a coffee substitute in times of shortage, poverty, or necessity. Chicory is caffeine-free and holds a stronger roasted flavor than traditional coffee; New Orleanians have long been mixing it with coffee and hot milk to create the famed café au lait. When the long, hot southern days give way to a cool, moonlit night, a cup of chicory coffee can reinvigorate a body worn down by the summer sun.
I skipped the au lait and went straight for the café, black. Café Du Monde. Other than serving as an extender of coffee during lean times, chicory adds a sweet nuttiness to coffee's bitter flavor. Chicory coffee would be a good idea for people who don't take well to straight coffee's acidity, or who like to drink coffee late at night. It's smooth, easy-drinking and roasty, and a nice change of pace from your usual Coffea arabica.
From the Mississippi Delta, we head south to the Mexican coastlines where rice crops flourish. The Valencia rice grown here goes into the production of our next southern potable but comes from the Spanish Mediterranean shore. This region was one of the many in Spain occupied by the Moors in the latter half of the first millennium of the Common Era. Much of the Moorish population came from northern Africa, including Egypt. With their scientific and cultural knowledge, the Moors also brought to Spain the tigernut, or chufa. This was one of the plants that may very well have been grown alongside the chicory, and goes into the traditional recipe of a beverage called horchata.
While Spanish horchata is still made with tigernuts, the Mexican variety uses the Valencia rice of horchata's modern-era birthplace. Along with almonds, the rice is pulverized and mixed with cinnamon, sugar, and lime, then strained with water to make a drink very similar in consistency to milk. But just as coffee-substitute chicory is naturally caffeine-free, milky horchata is completely dairy-free. Still, it is sometimes hard to separate the appearance of horchata from the makeup, especially when considering the presence of citrus in the recipe. Don't worry; it won't curdle.
El Pescador serves up a veritable bathtub of horchata in a very homey, green-tinted Coca-Cola glass. Icy and perfectly refreshing, the restaurant's horchata is dominated by cinnamon, but not in a sharp or hot way. Horchata is pretty easy to find, except for on the menu. Some restaurants list it very near the end, and others--like my personal favorite, Antojitos El Toril-- don't list it at all. I was sad, but not too surprised, to see that I was the only person in sight enjoying the horchata, but that's their loss, and more for me.
We end our tour below the equator in the shadows of the Peruvian highlands. Peru sustains a purple variant of maize that apparently mystifies geneticists for its fussy expression of pigment genes and is featured in a variety of Peruvian dishes. It can be cultivated along the Pacific coast and in the mountainous plains from Puno to Huancayo, and also offers a substantial dose of antioxidants. This maiz morado also gives us the most colorful of our three beverages, chicha morada.
The history of chicha morada makes it more fringe than its present incarnation. In pre-modern times, chichas -- of which there are many types, nearly all fermented -- were produced by women who chewed the corn kernels, formed the resulting mash into balls which were then dropped into water to ferment for days at a time. Fortunately, this is not the case with modern, North American chicha morada. Nowadays, the corn kernels are cooked just like dried beans, but with pineapple, lime, cinnamon, clove and sugar. The resulting deep purple liquid is strained, chilled, and served. You should notice some similarities to horchata. The end result looks awfully different, but the process and ingredients are very much alike.
There are two Peruvian restaurants in the Madison area, but not having visited Red and White in Sun Prairie, I'll tell you about the chicha morada consumed at interesting..." quality is clear. But the Central and South American drinks are perfect for cooling off on a hot day, and the chicory will smooth out all the rough edges of summer toil without buzzing you up. Give these drinks a chance, and the south might indeed rise to the occasion.