A year ago, when I was fairly new in Sydney, I met my Peruvian friends (and their Peruvian friends) for dinner. Of course it was a great opportunity to learn some important facts about life here, so I asked lots of questions about my two main concerns: how to get a job and where to buy Peruvian ingredients. The first issue was solved within weeks, but the second one remained a mystery for a while.
One of my friends told me he had heard about a store in Fairfield, but didn’t know the name or location. Google helped me clear things out (the store’s name is Tierras Latinas) but for unknown reasons (ie, laziness) I didn’t go there until last Sunday.
I live in Newtown (Erskineville, according to the real estate agency), so Fairfield is not that far away but somehow spending more than one hour on two trains (plus a few extra bucks because that station is not in my weekly pass zone) didn’t appeal to me. After all, I have some stuff I brought from Lima. But they’ve got something I couldn’t bring and that makes all the difference for certain dishes: chicha de jora.
I’ve written about it in past posts, but I’ll refer to Wikipedia’s wisdom to enlighten you: “Chicha de jora is prepared by germinating maize, extracting the malt sugars, boiling the wort, and fermenting it in large vessels, traditionally huge earthenware vats, for several days. The process is essentially the same as the process for the production of beer. In some cultures, instead of germinating the maize to release the starches therein, the maize is ground, moistened in the chicha maker’s mouth, and formed into small balls which are then flattened and laid out to dry. Naturally occurring ptyalin enzymes in the maker’s saliva catalyses the breakdown of starch in the maize into maltose. (This process of chewing grains or other starches was used in the production of alcoholic beverages in pre-modern cultures around the world, including, for example, sake in Japan.)” Of course the first method is the one used for commercial chicha.
Chicha can be drank straight or used as an ingredient in cooking. I remember the first time I went to Cusco (where Machu Picchu is), one of the stops was in a local village where our group was given a giant glass (picture a blender jug without the handle) to drink chichafrom, passing the glass to the next person after taking a few sips. I was twelve years old and there was no reason for not drinking, in the highlands everybody enjoys chicha.
Even when chicha is very popular in the Andes, I learned from one of my cooking teachers that the best one comes from the North coast of the country. I’ve tasted it and it’s really good. You can really notice the difference between, let’s say a chicha from Piura and chicha from Huancayo, but the most dramatic difference can be found between traditionally made chicha and supermarket-bought chicha. Unfortunately, the only one I can get here is the latter. On the bright side, there is also a day-and-night difference between a dish with and without it.
The most popular traditional dishes that feature chicha are:
- seco de cabrito a la norteña (Northern style baby goat stew with onion, garlic, chili, tomato, squash, coriander, cumin, chicha and malt beer, usually served with beans and rice)
- adobo (pork stew with chicha, onion, garlic, yellow and red chili, oregano and cumin, served with rice and boiled sweet potato)
- arroz con pato (rice cooked with onion, garlic, coriander, chili, chicha, malt beer, duck stock, peas and capsicum, served with a piece of duck)
- seco de chabelo (dried beef stew with fried green bananas, chili, tomato, onion, achiote (spice that comes from a seed and is used mainly for colour), cumin, coriander, chicha, served with cancha)
- majarisco (seafood stew with fried green bananas, coriander, garlic, onion, chili and chicha)
My sister and I arrived to Tierras Latinas after noon. Entering the store was like buying a ticket to South America, they have products from Colombia, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina, Chile. The owner is Peruvian and all customers are South American, and of course we all spoke in Spanish. We spent a few minutes browsing the shelves with chilies, dulce de leche (caramel), yerba mate (a herb that is infused and drank like tea in Argentina and Uruguay), sauces, sweets, jarred vegetables, soft drinks, flours, natural medicine products, etc. They have also a refrigerated area with cheeses, olives, small goods and empanadas.
Because of Australian import laws, bringing stuff from South America is either forbidden or too expensive. The result is that we are destined to cook with ingredients that have been processed to a certain degree (jarred, pickled, turned into a paste with preservatives, etc) and that are not cheap at all. But there I was in front of the closest thing I could get to my cuisine, so I grabbed some stuff without worrying about the quality, price or even expiry date.
Besides two bottles of chicha (this one’s made with maize, quinoa, barley, chancaca, which is a brown “brick” of cane sugar, and water), I bought a round of queso fresco (feta cheese, Andean style, which is actually made in Australia by Riverina Cheeses), a jar of choclo (white corn) kernels, a jar of botija olives in brine, two jars of huacatay (a herb that is the essential ingredient of ocopa sauce), two sachets of ají panca (dried red chili) paste, a tin of olluco (a small yellow/orange tuber) in brine, and a bag of cancha (roasted corn kernels). I spent $92, which seems outrageous but was alright because I’m not planning to go back in a long while.
My sister bought some stuff too, and we shared a Uruguayan empanada, which unfortunately was not good. The filling was dry and the pastry was soggy.
As soon as I got back home, I couldn’t resist and tried the cheese. It was absolutely delicious, and tasted exactly as the Peruvian ones. We’ve been eating cheese all week, and will be using it on Sunday, when my small family here will be celebrating our Independence Day (which is actually on the 28th).
1/57 Smart St
Fairfield NSW 2165
(02) 9723 4446