A mild fermented alcoholic beverage made from the starchy root of manioc, Manihot esculenta, is a domesticated woody perennial shrub. Consumed in generous quantities, particularly during feasts and rituals, it has been a significant item in the diet of native tropical South Americans since pre-Columbian times. Adults and children alike drink it. The beer is known by different names (e.g., yarake, kashirx, chicha, masato).
Manioc beer can be prepared in different ways to change its taste and alcohol content. Manioc tubers can be peeled, boiled in water, and pounded to make a mash, or they can be peeled and grated and the resulting pulp can be boiled. Sometimes the tubers are placed in a dugout canoe with water for several days to soften before boiling. Toasted manioc cakes, instead of fresh tubers, are also employed. Although the beer can be made with manioc only, other items are often added to the boiling pot, including one or more varieties of sweet potato, maize, pineapple, and sugar cane. To promote fermentation, boiled manioc or sweet potato is chewed and added to the mash. The mash is then left to ferment for several (at least 2-3) days in a dugout canoe or, more frequently today, in some huge plastic container such as a garbage can. The alcohol content increases with the length of fermentation period. Some native groups will further enhance the beer’s alcohol content by adding sugar cane rum, a practice that is related to the introduction of rum into native areas. To drink the beer, water is mixed with the mash, which is then strained through a sieve. Some groups (e.g., the Campa of Peru) follow a strict etiquette when serving the beer. In several groups, women will serve both male and female guests; in others, males will serve males and females will serve females.
Prepared by women and shared beyond the nuclear family or household level, manioc beer highlights camaraderie based on food sharing and the exchange of products between the sexes. In many native groups, manioc beer is given to those who participate in collective work such as the clearing of a garden. Women are frequently judged on their ability to make this beer. Similarly, the quality of feasts is appraised by the amount and excellence of the beer. Although manioc beer is still made and drunk in prodigious quantities by various groups, the art of making manioc beer has been in decline. In the past, women prepared many types of manioc beer (e.g., the Taulipang made nine types) by using different varieties of both manioc and added crops, mixing other ingredients such as ash, and exploiting different processing methods (e.g., allowing fungi to decompose the toasted manioc bread that is used). Today many women do not know about, or have never employed, these diverse methods of preparation. This is related to the decline of traditional rituals and feasts often brought about by participation in economic and political activities that detract from communal living and sharing, as well as to the proselytizing of Christian missionaries, among other reasons.
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