A Pedacito Of Peru's Purple Corn
Peru is home to over 3,500 varieties of potato and 55 varieties of corn, compared with the 10 varieties of corn grown in the US. One of the most important, and unique, of these 55 varieties are purple corn, which is used in desserts and sweet drinks.
Foodies love it for both the antioxidants and the flavor and it’s been eaten in Peru for over 2,500 years. Three of the most popular uses for purple corn are mazamorra, api, and chicha morada.
Purple corn is only one of many unique foods that are native to Peru, thanks to the many microclimates in the Peruvian Andes. Peru has 90 microclimates, including 30 of Earth’s 32 climates. Purple corn grows at high altitudes, though in a warm climate.
Unless you’re close to the equator, like in Peru, high altitude and warmth do not go together. There isn’t a lot written about purple corn in English, though this scientific study was published in both Spanish and English.
Walking through the streets of Cusco, you’ll see people selling mazamorra, usually in plastic tubs. The bottom layer is a custardy rice pudding, and the top layer is a bright purple pudding.
Both layers are sweet, though the top layer of purple corn pudding is much sweeter. It doesn’t taste at all like the white or yellow corn that’s grown in the US and eaten on the cob on the 4th of July and other summer events.
At over 11,000 feet above sea level, the streets of Cusco are full of hot drinks to keep people warm and hydrated at altitude.
A few options are quinoa, which is boiled with bits of apple and cinnamon, emoliente, which is based on flax seeds, ponche de habas, which is made with roasted fava beans, and maca, which is made with powder from a root vegetable that’s also called maca.
Everybody who sells them in the streets has their own recipe but they’re all sweet and filling. Api is the only one made from corn and by far my favorite of all the hot drinks you can find strolling through Cusco.
I haven’t found any recipes in English, but here’s an api recipe in Spanish. It’s thick and sweet and besides the purple corn flavor, there’s always cinnamon. Though api is usually a hot drink, it can also be used as a base for other desserts. Api with fruit has even won a dessert competition in Cusco.
Even more famous than mazamorra or api is the cold Cusqueñian drink chicha morada. This is a classic that is served in almost every restaurant and café in Cusco. Though I love api and mazamorra, I haven’t actually made either of those at home.
You can buy mixes at grocery stores to make your own but they always seem like too much work to make from scratch. If you read this recipe for mazamorra, you’ll see why! I have made chicha morada several times though. Here’s my recipe:
1 ear of dried purple corn, with the kernels taken off
2 slices of pineapple peel, each the size of your hand
2 limes, cut in quarters
1 large cinnamon stick or a teaspoon of powdered cinnamon
Mix all of the ingredients in about 8 cups of water in a soup pot. Bring it to a boil, then let it simmer for an hour. Let it cool in the pot and sit covered on the counter overnight, not in the fridge. The next day, strain the corn and other ingredients out with a wire strainer or cheesecloth. Serve with or without ice.
If you don’t have pineapple peel, you can use half a cup of crushed pineapple or sugar. I don’t like it very sweet, but some people would add a half cup of sugar even with the 2 slices of pineapple peel.
Chicha morada translates to “purple chicha,” which differentiates it from regular chicha, also called chicha de jora. What makes something chicha is a fermentation process.
Chicha de jora is made with sprouted white corn that is fermented for three days and has a little more alcohol than kombucha, but not as much as beer. Chicha morada isn’t fermented, but letting it sit overnight lets the flavors meld and gives it a richer taste.