Sunday, September 18, 2011

Chilean Chicha

We sat down by the fire and they immediately placed before us two good looking pitchers of chicha. My portion was clear, sweet and spicy, and the chief toasted me with it, saying that I should eat and drink…  Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán. 1673 (all translations mine) 
This drink is highly appreciated in Chile and rich families as well as the poor consume great quantities while it retains its sweetness.  Claudio Gay, 1841 
The Independence Day fiestas are coming soon and there will be no Chilean tables that don’t include a good meat empanada and a glass of chicha. September, 2011[1]

From before the Spanish conquest to today chicha has been the most Chilean of drinks.  Whether the sweet strawberry chicha that the young soldier Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán enjoyed,  the stronger muday or corn chicha the Mapuche warriors drank, the apple chicha of Chiloé, or the grape chicha of central Chile, it has brought refreshment and cheer to Chileans for centuries, perhaps for millennia.

Chicha came to the attention of the European voyagers early.  On the fifth of August, 1498, Columbus came ashore in Venezuela and, according to the letter he wrote to the King, the Indians “…brought …. wine of many kinds white and red, but not of grapes. It must be of several kinds, one of one fruit and one of another and likewise one must be of maize, which is a seed which makes a spike like a cob…”

To the Spanish, all were “chicha,” a term which seems to have been part of several indigenous American languages. It was first documented in written Spanish in 1521, when a visitor to Panama noted that it was short for “chichah co-pah”, where “chichah” meant maize and “co-pah” drink.[2]  It came to be used generically for the fermented drinks of the Indians, replacing the native terms like the azúa of the Incas and the muday of the Mapuche of Chile.

Mapuche Chicha

Among the Mapuche, indigenous people of south central Chile, chicha made from grains or fruits was an integral part of social life. Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán writes about a gathering he attended in the 1620s:

To the chiefs they gave splendid food, various dishes of fish, shellfish, fowl, partridges, bacon, sausages, pastries, buñuelos, tomatoes, rolls of beans and maize, and other things, providing for each band according to the people it contained, one hundred or two hundred measures of chicha, because more commonly only twenty or thirty bands came together for ordinary drinking parties and feasts, but in this one there were more than fifty, with a daily consumption of more than four thousand jugs of chicha. And that was not a lot, because there were twelve or fourteen thousand souls at that feast, Indian men and women, girls [chinas] and boys.[3]
Jesuit Diego de Rosales, who was a missionary among the Mapuche in the 17th century explains:
Chicha, which is like beer or our wine, is the joy of all get-togethers or parties and is the usual drink, because there are Indians who never drink water, but only chicha in their houses, and if it is lacking it there is an argument with the women that often ends in blows.  …They make chicha of all kinds, from grains like maize, wheat, barley, and from fruit like apples, pears, quince, strawberries, piñones [seeds of Araucaria araucana] murtilla [Chilean Guava, Ugni molinae) and other native fruit: they grind the grain, add yeast, heat it and when it is just right it is finished.

Mapuches making apple chicha -  Edmond Reuel Smith 1855[4]

When they have to make a lot of [maize] chicha for a large party, the women get together at night and in a circle with their milling stones they spend the whole night singing a funny song in which they keep time with the movements of their milling.  The old women and the little girls who don’t have the strength to mill (which takes a lot of strength) work in making yeast, which they do with the flour they are making, chewing it and putting it into some pitchers, and there is an old woman who grinds the yeast. This yeast and the ground flour they put in large pans of water that are on the fire, and this is the chicha at its beginning, which if kept for many days becomes sour and is strong like strong spicy vinegar. [5]
This method of making maize chicha, which Rosales describes above, was common throughout maize growing areas of central and South America.  It involves masticating ground coked maize, drying it, and then mixing it with more ground maize and water.  This was then brought to a boil and allowed to ferment.  By masticating the maize, enzymes in the saliva convert some of the starch into sugar, which is then available to yeasts for fermentation into alcohol. It is not “yeast” as Rosales thought, but is an alternative to malting (sprouting) grain, which accomplishes the same purpose. (No mastication was required for fruit chichas.)

Colonial Chilean chicha

Soon after the Spanish arrived in Chile, planting grapes was a high priority as wine was essential for religious observances and was an integral part of Spanish diet.  Vines arrived in Mexico as early as 1520, in Peru by 1540, and Chile the first vineyard was plated by Juan Jufré, first alcalde (mayor) of Santiago, probably around 1550 and wine production began shortly afterward.[6] 

But chicha isn’t exactly wine, it’s wine in the process of fermentation, and the origins of grape chicha, as distinct from wine, are unclear.  Chilean historian Eugenio Pereira Salas sees it as a “new drink” which, in the 18th century was replacing wine, as the drink of the common people. It is first mentioned in 1760, when seen as responsible for death and disgraceful behavior caused by the “the boundless appetite of the common people who make it and who have given it the name chichita.”[7]

Pereria Salas sees chicha as a descendant of Mapuche muday, which is quite reasonable, but he notes that in Spain it would be known as “sagardúa,” from the Basque word for cider. In fact similar partially fermented wines are produced throughout Europe, under names that translate as “feather wine,” “new wine,” “young wine,” and in southern Spain as “mosto,” though none seem to be cooked before fermentation and it do not keep as long as chicha.

Claudio Gay, writing in the 1840s, explains how it Chilean chicha, now called (chicha cocida or chicha baya) was made:
It is preferably prepared from the juice of the sweetest grapes. This juice is given a light coking, frequently not reaching a boil, and after cooling, it is placed in sealed barrels. Form that point fermentation proceeds, producing a great deal of carbon dioxide which puts the barrel in risk if a pinhole is not carefully opened for the gas to escape. This pinhole is closed with a plug that is removed every two hours during the fermentation. The chicha thus produced is decanted into barrels for consumption. After six to eight days it can be drunk, and many people prefer it as it is then foamy and spicy, but it causes many burps and for this reason it is usually drunk only a month or two later. It doesn’t last long and by October it begins to oxidize and is used for distillation [into aguardiente].[8]

Chicha cruda, uncooked chicha, or chacolí was (and still is) also be made by simply allowing grape juice to ferment, but it must be drunk within a few days before it begins to turn to vinegar.

By the time Englishwoman Maria Grahm was in Chile, in the 1840s…
The liquor commonly drank by the lower classes is chicha, the regular descendant of that intoxicating chicha which the Spaniards found the South American savages possessed of the art of making, by chewing various berries and grains, spitting them into a large vessel, and allowing them to ferment. But the great and increasing demand for chicha has introduced a cleanlier way of making it ; and it is now in fact little other than harsh cider, the greater part being produced from apples, and flavored with the various berries which formerly supplied the whole of the Indian chicha.[9]
The chicha deliveryman[10]

Chilean chicha today

While there is bottled chicha in the supermarkets around the time of Chilean Independence day, September 18, most Chilean chicha is sold from barrels in fondas (booths) at independence day celebrations, picadas (cafes/bars), or at the rural chicharias where it is made.  This year we bought ours from the Valladares, artisanal producers in the town of Curacaví, 50 km or so from Santiago.

Their production techniques are virtually the same as those reported by Gay in the 1840s.  The grape juice is heated for several hours at a low temperature and when cool, sealed into tinajas, large earthenware jars, for fermentation.  They didn’t mention allowing the carbon dioxide to escape—perhaps the seal on the tinajas isn’t so tight as to build up destructive pressure. Then when the chicha has reached the point they wish, sweet but with good acidity and a bit of alcohol, it is decanted into barrels. 

Tinajas of chicha

Two strengths were available when we went, one quite sweet and the other less so and a bit more piquant.  We bought some of each, the piquant to drink then (they said that it wouldn’t last until the 18th), and the sweet to save for the 18th, about 10 days later.  It was about 1,500 pesos ($3.15) a liter.  They have chicha available year round.

Chicha de Curacaví

Chicha de Curacaví, chicha balla y curaora 
Chicha de Curacaví. Que ponis los pasos lentos
Chicha de Curacaví a mi no me los ponis
Cicha de Curacaví por que te pasó pa' entro
Chicha de Curacaví chicha valla y curaora

Se acabó la chichita alla va, lla va, tambien la
Se curó la cantora alla va, lla va, todos pa' fuera
Se acabó la chichita alla va, lla va, tambien la vela.
Todos pa' fuera ay si alla va, lla va, chicha en botella 
A la mujer celosa alla va, lla va, palos con ella.[11]

Which is, more or less, the following:

Chicha de Curacaví, cream colored and intoxicating
Chicha de Curacaví, that makes you step slowly
Chicha de Curacaví, but that doesn’t happen to me
Cicha de Curacaví because I put it inside me
Chicha de Curacaví, cream colored and intoxicating.

The chicha is all gone, there it goes, the candle is out too
The singer got drunk, there it goes, everyone goes out side
Everyone goes outside, there they go, chicha in a bottle
The jealous woman, there she goes, give her a whack.

And here’s a video with the music.

[1] Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, Francisco, 1608-1680. 2001. El cautiverio feliz, Tomo dos; edición crítica de Mario Ferreccio Podestá y Raïssa Kordić  Riquelme. Santiago de Chile: Seminario de Filología Hispánica, Facultad de Filosofía y Humanidades, Universidad de Chile, p. 86. on line at; Gay, Claudia 1862 Agricultura Vol 2, p. 193. Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago online at; and Fierro, Verónica.  En fiestas patrias: ministerio de agricultura elegirá las mejores empanadas y chicha de todo chile.  Sept. 11, 2011.
[2] Pardo, O. 2004. Las chichas en el chile precolombino. (basado en una trabajo presentado en el xii congreso ítalo-latinoamericano de etnomedicina "nuno álvares pereira" (Río de Janeiro, Brasil, 8-12 de Septiembre 2003). Chloris Chilensis año 7 nº 2. Url:
[3] Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, Op Cit. p. 207.
[4] Smith, Edmund Reuel. 1855. The Araucanians; or, Notes of a Tour among the Indian tribes of Southern Chile.  New York:  Harper & brothers. p. 278 On line at  
[5] Rosales, Diego de. 1877 (1674) Historia general de el Reyno de Chile: Flandes Indiano. Valpariso: Imprenta del Mercurio. Vol. I p. 155. on line at
[6] Pozo, José del.  1998. Historia del vino chileno desde 1850 hasta hoy. Santiago: Editorial Universitaria. P. 28.  On line at
[7] Pereira Salas, Eugenio.  1977. Apuntes para la historia de la cocina chilena.  Santiago : Universitaria. p. 65 On line at
[8] Gay, Caludio. Op. cit. p.
[9] Graham, Maria. 1824. Journal of a Residence in Chile, During the Year 1822.  London: Longman, Hurst, etc. p. 127. On line at
[10] Drawing by unknown author from Álbud de tioso chilenos de mediados del siglo diecinueve, Sociedad de Bibliófilo Chilenos, Santiago, 1987 as reproduced in Pozo, Jose, Op. cit. p. 39

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Loco over locos, Chilean “abalone”

Locos, Chilean “abalone” (Concholepas concholepas),[1] are among Chile’s, and my wife’s, favorite shellfish.  And of course the name, from the Mapuche language, makes for some interesting translations since “loco” is Spanish for “crazy:”  “crazies with mayonnaise,” etc., frequently adorn the English versions of Chilean menus.  

While similar in appearance, taste and texture to abalone – which exist in Chile only as an introduced aquaculture species – locos are smaller and are carnivorous, feeding mainly on mussels.  They inhabit rocky coastal shallows down to about 40 m. along the coast of South America from northern Peru to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego.  They grow slowly, taking 4 to 5 years to reach the minimum harvestable size of 10 cm. (about 4 inches) in diameter and, based on evidence from archaeological sites, have been part of Chilean diet for over 8,500 years.[2]  And they were abundant; one 6,000 year old shell midden near Los Vilos contained an estimated 4,185,000 shells. [3]

Upon their arrival, the Spanish also developed a taste for locos.  The earliest mention seems to be from Padre Diego Rosales, in his General History of the Kingdom of Chile (1640):

The Chileans call the donkey foot* loco.  It seems a vulgar food, but if it is macerated by pounding it looses its hardness and is tasty.[4]

*pie de burro – name for loco in Peru

Pedro Gonzales de Agueros (1768-1793) mentions them in 1791, saying:

The locos resemble donkey’s foot or hoof and are so tough that to stew them it is necessary to beat them first with sticks or stones and in this manner tenderize them and afterwards they come out very tasty.[5]



 Photo: Luis Muñoz
 Photo: Paul Monfils

 Writing a few years later, Jesuit naturalist, Juan Ignacio Molina (1740-1829) gives then a scientific name (which was later changed to Concholepas concholepas) and describes them as follows:

The Loco, Murex loco - oval, with a very short tail, knobby above, toothless opening, almost round.  This muricid [sea snail] is held in high esteem for the taste of its flesh, which is white, but a little bitter, however cooks have found ways to make it perfectly tender, by beating it with a stick before cooking. It is three to four inches thick and contains two or three drops of a royal purple liquor within a little bladder near the neck.[6]

Molina’s observation that locos contain a few drops of “royal purple liquor,” is a testament to his observation.  No other Colonial source seems to notice, although the Inca used locos or a related rock snail (Thais chocolate) to produce dyes similar to the Royal Purple from Mediterranean sea snails.[7]

The locos fishery

Unsurprisingly, after the accounts of the early natural historians, locos disappeared from history, if not from the tables of Chileans.  We know that they remained abundant through the end of the 19th century when they could be purchased on the beach for 60 centavos per hundred, or about 4 times that much in Santiago.[8]  (For comparison beef and lamb sold for from 70 to 90 centavos a kilo.)  And there is sporadic data from the early 20th century: in 1926, 67 metric tons of locos were landed; during the 1940s loco landings were between 1,000 and 2,000 tons per year; and by the 1950s, when data becomes regularly available, landings averaged around 4,000 tons per year and remained at this level until 1975.

During this period they were harvested mainly by ‘hookah” divers operating from open wooden boats with outboard motors. 

The fishing lasted one day, depending on weather conditions, in the sub-tidal areas, seldom exceeding the 5-mile offshore limit. There were three crew members: the patron or boatman, an auxiliary and the diver. The auxiliary, called a “telegrapher”, takes care of the air compressor, the life rope and the hoses. The air compressor has one air exit for the diver. He lifts and sinks the bag, helped by the patron. The diver harvests Locos using a rubber suit. Diving is between 2 to 6 hours each trip, and although the result varies, between 200 and 400 Locos are taken in one day. The diver pulls out Locos one by one with a kind of short pike (chope), and gathers between 40 and 100 Locos in his waist bag. When the bag is full, he gives a signal to the “telegrapher” by drawing the rope. The "telegrapher" lifts the bag and sends a replacement to the diver.[9]

Hookah dive boats. Chiloé, 2010         Photo: Germán Henriquez

In 1976, with encouragement from the military dictatorship’s unregulated free market ideology, exportation of frozen locos to Japan began.  That first shipment of 48 tons of “Chilean abalone” sold for $1.38 US a kilo.  The following year exports increased to 2,368 tons at around $2.50 a kilo and generated $6 million, and by 1980 the total catch had grown to 24,856 tons; about 6 times the total annual production 10 years earlier—and very little of it was being eaten by Chileans.  The catch began to drop off after 1980, but increased price brought the year’s income for exported locos to about $26 million in 1982.  And by 1987, as the supply decreased, the price for frozen export quality locos increased to $10 US a kg. so that slightly under 4,000 tons brought Chile an income of $42.6 million.

As you can imagine, the increasing demand and price for locos brought chaos to the coast and overexploitation to the fishery. Registered locos fishermen increased from 17,000 in 1975 to 57,000 in 2005. And they migrated to new areas creating conflicts with local fishermen, called ”locos fever” or “the locos wars” by the newspapers:  “National media covered the frenzy, propagating the image of rowdy and drunken migrant fishermen fighting and also cavorting with prostitutes on the beaches.”[10]

 It even inspired a movie, La Fiebre del Loco:


The film is about infighting between visiting prostitutes and their husbands' wives in a small fishing village in rural Southern Chile that has become greedy and crazy for Abalone. The film's tagline was "Amor y avaricia en un mundo de buzos y moluscos" (Spanish for: Love and greed in a world of scuba and mollusks). 

This chaos and the dramatic fall in the catch led to steps to control the fishery, often ineptly organized and plagued by illegal fishing.  First were seasonal closures, from 1981 to 1984, followed by national quotas and closure of all but the southern areas from 1985 to 1989, and then by a total closure of the fishery from 1990 to 1992.  Starting in 1993 a system of management areas was established in which only registered fishermen from a particular caleta or cove could collect locos in their area and no locos could be taken from outside of the management areas; a system designed to give fishermen ownership of the fishery and incentives to promote sustainability.  That system has now been applied, the harvest has returned to levels similar to those of the early 1970, which are presumably sustainable -- in spite of an ethos among fishermen applauding illegal fishing by locals.

Eating locos

Locos are widely available in Chile today.  They are on the menu of many up-scale restaurants, and fresh locos in the shell and frozen cleaned locos sell for around 1000 to 1,200 pesos each ($2.15 – 2.65) while fresh cleaned locos sell for around 20,000 pesos a dozen in Santiago ($43). Prices are lower at fish markets and still lower on the coast. 

If you wish to become a “locovore” and prepare fresh locos from scratch, this is what  the New Kitchen Manual of 1882 suggests:

Put them in a thick bag and beat them [se apalea] forcefully until they are good and soft, but without breaking them; wash them in warm water and then put them in more warm water and bring them to boil over a strong flame; when they are cooked take a little of their soup to melt flour and make a thick gravy [una mazamorra] and season it with a little color [chili or paprika cooked in grease].[11]

By the 20th century, the advice was more detailed and relied on chemistry as well as force.  In a chapter called “useful advice and little secrets…” in her 1935 cookbook The Good Table, Olga Budge de Edwars recommends three ways to tenderize locos:

First: With ashes.  Leave them for an hour covered with ashes and then beat each one separately covered with ashes with a thin stick.

Second:  With flour and baking soda.  ½ kilo of flour, 2 tablespoons of baking soda. [and proceed as above?].

Third: With coarse kitchen salt.  ½ kilo of salt.

In truth, the secret is in killing them, which is almost imperceptible by simple looking, and to accomplish this objective, the best system is to put them in a sack or canvas and beat them against something hard. No loco can resist the combination of coarse salt with a bit of baking soda and flour.[12]

Frozen locos

If all this seems to require bit more effort than you want to expend, you can use frozen locos (which seem to be pre-pounded and require only cleaning and cooking according to this video recipe for Korean abalone porridge).

Or use canned locos,  

Chile's Seafood treasure!
All Natural
            $31.70   L-SE-05

  • Three or four whole abalone per tin
  • Gourmet quality
  • Harvested from the pure coastal waters off Chile
  • Size - 13.4 ounces
From the cool, fresh waters off the coast of southern Chile come these delicious 'Locos', also known as Chilean Abalone. They share the rich flavor and signature texture of their northern cousin, the Pacific Abalone.
The pure southern Pacific Ocean ensures a fresh clean flavor to these shellfish. They have a full flavor and a firm bite that make them perfect chopped in an onion and tomato salad, or sautéed and added to pasta or a cream sauce.
Or simply heat them slowly in warm water, then serve them with melted butter for an unusual delicacy sure to please all who try it.


After pounding fresh locos are boiled or cooked in a pressure cooker until tender.  Sources differ on how long this takes, from 15 minutes (plus cool down time) to 45 minutes in a pressure cooker or from 45 minutes to 2 hours boiling in an open pan.  All suggest you save the broth.

The most popular preparation seems to be: 

Locos con mayo /  Locos with mayonnaise.

Cool the locos to room temperature and serve with a mixed salad, mayo and Chilean salsa verde (parsley, minced onion and lemon juice); two for a first course, 4 to 6 for a main course.

Another popular dish is:

Chupe de locos / Stewed locos
6 large locos, cooked and cut into rounds
1 tablespoon tomato sauce
1 minced onion
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ tablespoon paprika (ají de color)
1/2 cup of the locos cooking liquid
1/2 cup fresh crumbs from French style bread (marraqueta)
1/2 cup milk
2 hard boiled eggs cut in to rounds
1/2 cup grated cheese (queso mantecoso or Munster)

Soak the bread crumbs in the milk for 10 minutes, then squeeze to remove the excess milk. Sauté the onion and paprika in the oil, then add the tomato sauce, the bread crumbs and the locos broth.  Put the locos and eggs in an oven proof dish, cover with abundant grated cheese and bake for 30 minutes.

And finally, for the ultimate in empanadas:

Empanadas de locos -- Cocinarte Chile

Cook the locos until very tender, cut into small pieces, soften the onion in a little oil cooked with paprika (color), add the locos, salt, chili, hard boiled egg and a little of the broth the locos were cooked in. Form small empanadas and fry.

Locos are good for you too:  100 grams provide 120 calories, 21 grams of protein and only .5 grams of fat. (Tabla de composición química de alimentos chilenos)  I found no data on their cholesterol content, but similar species like abalone and conch have 70 - 90 mg/100 gm., about 30 - 40% of the cholesterol in one large egg.

[1] Also called  pata de burro (donkey foot) and chanque in Peruvian Spanish.  Wikipedia: Concholepas concholepas
[2] Jerardino, Antonieta,  Juan C. Castilla, José Miguel Ramírez and Nuriluz Hermosilla. 1992 Early Coastal Subsistence Patterns in Central Chile: A Systematic Study of the Marine-Invertebrate Fauna from the Site of Curaumilla-1 Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 43-62 
[3] Couyoumdjian, Juan Ricardo. 2009 El mar y el paladar. el consumo de pescados y mariscos en chile desde la independencia hasta 1930 Historia, Vol. 42, Núm. 1, enero-junio, pp. 57-107
[4] As quoted in Reyes E. 1986. ¿Que paso con el loco?. Crónica de un colapso anunciado. Revista Chile Pesquero, N 36 Junio, pp. 143–145.
[5] Gonzalez de Agueros, Pedro. 1791. Descripción historial de la provincia y archipiélago de Chiloé, en el Reyno de Chile y Obispado de la Concepción. Dedicada a nuestro católico monarca Don Carlos IV (que Dios guarde).  Madrid: Impr. de Don Benito Cano. On line at
[6] Molina, Juan Ignacio. 1967. Ensayo sobre la historia natural de Chile : Bolonia 1810 Santiago : Eds. Maule. pp. 212. On line at
[7] Michel, Rudolph H. 1992. Indigoid Dyes in Peruvian and Coptic Textiles of The University Museum of. Archaeology and Anthropology.  Archeomaterials 6:69-83.
[8] Couyoumdjian, op. cit.
[9] The major sources for the history and management of the locos fishery come from Reyes, Eduardo F.  1986. ¿Qué pasó con el loco? Crónica de un colapso anunciado.
Revista Chile Pesquero N° 36, junio de 1986. On line at and Gallardo, op. cit.; Gallardo Fernández, Gloria L. 2008.  From Seascapes of Extinction to Seascapes of Confidence.  Chapter 5. On line at and Meltzoff S. K., Lichtensztajn Y G & Stotz W. 2002. Competing visions for marine tenure and co-management: Genesis of a marine management area system in Chile. Journal of Coastal Management 30: 85-99, 2002.
[10] Meltzoff, 2002. op cit. p. 88
[11] Anonymous. 1882.  Nuevo manual de cocina: conteniendo 377 recetas de guisos escojidos de las cocinas francesas, española, chilena, inglesa e italiana: arregladas para el uso de las familias del país.. Valparaíso : Libr. del Mercurio de Orestes L. Tornero  p. 34 On line at
[12] Budge de Edwars, Olga.  1935 “Consejos útiles y pequeños secretos para obtener mejor resultado en la confección de estas recetas” p. 32-36 La buena mesa. 2a. ed. revisada y aumentada. Santiago : Imp. Universitaria