Molded Corn Starter for Chicha in Costa Rica

A highlight of my recent visit to Costa Rica was seeing first-hand how the indigenous Bribri people there prepare a molded corn starter for making chicha, a corn-based alcoholic beverage. Chicha is most famously prepared in the Andes mountains of South America by chewing corn in order for the corn to become saturated with salivary amylase enzymes, which break down starches into simple sugars fermentable into alcohol. I have made chicha in this way and published information on how to do this in my books Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. I had heard from travelers to the Andes that much of the chicha available there today is produced not by chewing corn but instead by malting (sprouting or germinating) corn, as barley-based beer is made. Germination also produces enzymes that break down starches into simple fermentable sugars. Then, a few months ago, when I first met Costa Rican environmental and seed activist Fabian Pacheco, he told me about this chicha made using a molded starter.

There are the three ways in which people around the world break down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars to ferment into alcohol: malting, molds, and chewing. Each of the three methods accomplishes the job. Chewing is generally regarded as the most ancient method, in contemporary use in a few different regions that I have heard about, scattered around the world. The Western tradition of beer making relies on malting, as do African sorghum beers and some Central and South American corn beers. Molds are used throughout Asia, in varied forms with names including chu, koji, marcha, nuruk, ragi, and nearly infinite local variation. Though the use of molds to make alcoholic beverages (primarily Aspergillus molds, but the traditional mold cultures are generally biodiverse) is widespread across Asia, I had never heard or read of their use in any tradition elsewhere. That is, until I met Fabian and he told me about the use of molds by the Bribri people near the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica for making their version of chicha. Fabian invited me to come to Costa Rica and took me to meet his Bribri friends, who showed us how they make this molded corn starter that they call oko in their language, and is known in Spanish as mohoso, which translates as “moldy.”

Fabian brought me to Finca Loroco, a diversified organic farm and educational center, run by his Bribri friends. The oko was already in process, being made by Mauricia Vargas, the mother of the family, in keeping with tradition around the world in which women have been the brewers. As Mauricia explained it to me, dried kernals of (starchy) corn had been soaked in water for three days. Just before our arrival, the soaked (and thus already fermenting) corn was ground into a thick paste, like a masa dough for tortillas or tamales. We participated in the next step, placing handfuls of this dough into large leaves of a plant they called bijawa (genus Calathea). Each mass of dough was wrapped like a tamale, except in two leaves. The technique was to fold the stacked leaves in half, in order to break their spines in the middle, then form the mass of dough into a rectangular shape on the stacked leaves, roughly 6 inches/15 cm high by 3 inches/7.5 cm wide and ½ inch/1 cm deep. (I did not measure, these are my estimates, and the masses varied quite a bit in size.) The important thing is that the mass be small enough to fold the leaves around them and completely enclose them.



Dough made by grinding soaked corn, bijawa leaves for wrapping it, and cooked, wrapped corn masses.



Mauricia Vargas wrapping corn dough in bijawa leaves for making oko.


The corn dough wrapped in leaves were then cooked in a big pot, most of them covered with water, but the ones at the top steamed rather than boiled. They were cooked for about an hour, then removed from the pot, and left to spontaneously ferment and mold. We did not stay for the entire fermentation period, but as Mauricia explained it to us, the wrapped corn is left undisturbed for four days. On the fifth day, the leaves are opened and the corn masses are removed. Then the leaves are turned over and the corn masses are rewrapped, with what had been the outer surfaces of the leaves in contact with the corn mass. This brings different leaf surfaces into contact with the corn mass, exposes everything to air (molds need oxygen), and seems to help to evenly distribute mold formation. After four more days, the mass is partially dried in the sun, then rewrapped, again flipping the leaves to vary surface contact. Finally, after four more days, the moldy masses are dried in the sun and ready to use or store until use.



Wrapped corn masses cooking on the fire.





Mauricia Vargas and her family, along with Fabian Pacheco, my wonderful host in Costa Rica who took me to meet them.


I participated in the initial wrapping stage only and was sent off with a couple of the wrapped corn masses to age as they described. When I first examined the corn masses after four days, mold growth was patchy. By color and by smell, I could recognize some of the mold as Aspergillus mold like those I have grown many times on rice and barley to make koji. But it showed green mold as well, indicating more than a single type of mold. Four days later, mold covered most, but still not all the surface. Some of the molds were long and hairy and clearly were sporulating. I did not remain in Costa Rica long enough to complete the process or make chicha with the oko, nor did I dare try to bring it home with me, to complete the process or send it to a lab for analysis.



Molds growth after four days.


Mold growth after nine days.


Even in this one family, there are many ways of making chicha. Most are made without the moldy oko starter. We had delicious (and strong) chicha made by removing the steamed and cooled corn masses from the leaves (without the molding process), mixing them together into a paste in a bucket, allowing this paste to ferment in a solid state for several days, then adding water and sugar and allowing the liquid to ferment for a few more days. We were also served a chicha made by adding steamed bananas to the corn paste, allowing that to ferment in a solid state, then mixing that with water immediately prior to serving. They also described chicha made with cacao and corn. Clearly chicha is not a single uniform product but rather a range of corn-based beverages, some only mildly alcoholic, others stronger. The chichas prepared without the moldy oko require sugar or bananas for fermentable simple sugars; the oko is necessary only for chicha made from just corn and water, so that the amylase enzymes from the molds can break down the starchy corn into fermentable sugars.

Due to the fact that I was not there long enough to see the process in its entirety, along with the limitations of our communications and translation, this is certainly not a comprehensive or definitive account. But because nothing (that I have come across in the English language literature) has been written about this, and because of its apparent uniqueness in the Western hemisphere, I thought it was important to share this information, incomplete as it may be. Was this practice the result of an accidental discovery, as so many fermentation processes are, with similar molds developing on grains here as across Asia? Or was there perhaps some past Asian influence here, long forgotten? The origins of fermentation practices are always shrouded in mystery. But over and over we see patterns repeated, with microbial phenomenon manifesting similarly (and at the same time uniquely) in disparate locations. Molded grains for alcohol in Central America is very exciting.


^v Click For Comments

6 thoughts on “Molded Corn Starter for Chicha in Costa Rica

  1. Wow Sandor! Thank you.

    I have a friend from El Salvador who is a baker and chef. I will ask him to look at this process to see if the people in his country have their own version. I’m sure they do. I’ll also be checking with a friend from Venezuela.

    Sandor, we need a NORTH AMERICAN food lab like the Danish Nordic Food Lab right to move faster toward more international cooperation and sharing ancient traditions and sacred wisdom about food. As you well know, the corporate beverage masters kill more Americans each year Americans with their sugar water, sodas and high fructose syrup drinks! I brought them up because I see the packaging and the plastic bottles in my building’s recycle bin every day. People go to Wal Mart, Sams Club and Costo to buy it in huge bottles and by the case and then they actually drink it without even knowing that it’s killing them. Only love and hard work by people like us can help families and the millions of urban men and women who mindlessly drink sugar and fructose-based drinks and eat restaurant foods that come from corporate suppliers loaded with toxins! This should be enough to convince people to stop, but they aren’t paying attention as far as I can tell:

    I see the green “clover” truck roll up to restaurants in my neighborhood every day to deliver huge cans of processed food like huge cans of beans for burritos, huge cans of jalapeno peppers for green chile, and who knows where the GMO meat that they stuff inside the GMO white flour and corn tortillas comes from!

    Let’s start an exploratory team of people like us who want to ensure that the food revolution has to take place in the kitchens of young parents who can grow their own veggies, be educated to cook and ferment their OWN food in their OWN kitchens. It can happen if we put together an international team of business people, fundraisers, food scientists and an alliance building team to bring in the knowledge base. There is money available in the non-profit world to do such a people, children and families around the world.
    Consider it please!

    Anyone reading this please feel free to add thoughts and skills. We’d love to have a FOOD LAB in Denver, close to the green pastures of many of the best sources of meat and organic local/urban farmers in the country. We could also collaborate with the food freedom lovers in Wyoming where the governor signed the new FOOD FREEDOM ACT into law! See the link below:

    Cheers, and thanks for the great new information from your travels.


  2. 20 years ago, i stayed in the ecuadoran rainforest with some siona/secoya indigenous folks, who made chicha by chewing, but that used a starch from a palm tree (like a cassava). they harvested the pulp, and grated into a wooden trough (like a small canoe). they chewed the pulp and let it ferment as a pulp, and would dilute with water to serve. it was very alcoholic. in fact so much so, they used it to transport pigs by canoe to market (i.e. getting the pigs drunk enough that they became lethargic and placid enough to ride in the bottom of a wooden dugout canoe for several hours up river).

    regarding re-tooling american beverage markets with traditional foods—i recently saw a photo of a kvas truck from russia…where they drive this very unapetizing, industrial looking tank on wheels around towns and sell kvas by the liter (bring your own container). i would love to do that with kombucha if i didn’t have to deal with the extreme licensing/inspection requirements. my kids love kombucha, and eschew soda…so, really it’s just a question of how you get exposed.

  3. Thanks so much for your amazing account! It breaks my heart to know that so much traditional information like this has been lost to us in modern times. Keep doing what you do so well, we NEED you and others like you so we don’t all become the lost sheeple.

  4. Hi Sandor,
    This reminds me of a story my dad told me about his childhood in Honduras (1950s-60s). He says there was, and may still be, a tradition of making an alcoholic drink from a palm tree.

    They would fell a palm, and carve out the heart (another delicacy), forming a trough into which the sap would then flow. The trough was covered with the palm’s leaves and left to ferment in the sun for a period. My dad remembers people gathered around drinking the presumably alcoholic sap with straws, directly from the tree!

    I will get back to you with the name of this drink.

    • Hello Carlos.

      This process you describe very much describes what is known as “vino de coyol” (coyol wine) in Costa Rica as well. It is still made and commercialized nowadays (very small impact as far as I know)

      I hope this adds to the conversation.

      Best regards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *