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▷ Masato: the essential Amazonian drink

Find out here all about masato, also called the “beer of the Amazon”: reference to other typical Amazonian beverages, masato in the jungle, non-alcoholic and fermented preparation, uses, masato casha-casha, masato in ritual ceremonies and nutritional value.


Typical drinks of the Amazon in Iquitos-Peru

The first time I visited Iquitos, in 2015, a writer friend of mine, who had written novels set in the Amazon, recommended that I visit the Paquito passage, in the Belen market, in Iquitos, where I was going to taste natural juices with flavors never perceived before, and tasty, dense and refreshing mixtures, among them stand out:

  • The aguajina (with the aguaje drupe)
  • El chapo (with cooked ripe plantain)
  • Plataniza (with cooked and fermented ripe plantain)

I also got my hands on many “spirits” named with curious names, some of them with a clear symbolic meaning, which showed, in a double sense, their strong aphrodisiac power.

Next to the drinks macerated in sugarcane brandy of different products of the jungle (huitochado, with huito; canelachado, with an Amazonian cinnamon; abejachado, with bee honey), there were others aphrodisiacs such as rompecalzón (chuchuhuasi bark macerated in aguardiente and sweetened with Amazonian Melipona honey), and the popular seven roots (with chuchuhuasi, mururé, huasca clove, ipururo, cocobolo, huacapurana and cumaceba, macerated in aguardiente and sweetened with honey).

These were intoxicating beverages typical of an urban population composed of transculturated indigenous people, mestizos and whites, who were looking for more than just alcohol.

The masato was somewhere else…

You had to leave the city and go into the surrounding jungle to find masato, the indigenous drink par excellence. They call it the beer of the jungle.

Masato is prepared with sweet cassava, grown on the farm under the care of the women, since the cultivation, harvesting and processing of cassava is an exclusively female activity, while the planting and harvesting of plantains, on the contrary, is a male activity.

Once the yucca is harvested from the farm, it is shelled and cut into pieces that are washed and cooked.

Once the yucca is cooked, it is crushed in a large wooden pan, which is usually a small canoe in disuse, to form the yucca dough, which is the basis for the preparation of masato.

Masate (non-alcoholic) ingested each day

There are two types of masato preparations: the basic masato consumed every day in the family group and the masato consumed on special occasions.

Ordinary masato, consumed daily, even by children and the elderly, is an unfermented masato, which is considered a staple food. It is made and ingested every day, without giving it time to ferment.

To make it, a portion of fresh yucca dough is taken and diluted in water.

Thus, masato is practically the only beverage consumed in the house, even instead of water. Its density is not so thick, and its flavor is sweet.

In the urban context, within assimilated indigenous families, masato ponche is prepared, in which beaten eggs are added to the masato (Chirif 2016).

Masato (fermented) for special occasions

There are several occasions that can be considered special in the life of Amazonian indigenous communities: the arrival of a visitor, the moment of a rite of passage or transition, which implies the fulfillment of a ritual, and the moment of the feast, which they call masateada.

On all these occasions, fermented masato is consumed.

To ferment it, it used to be done, and is still done in some parts, in the following way: a small part of the cooked cassava dough is chewed by women, who then spit it over the rest of the dough.

The use of human saliva causes fermentation. The dough is then left to rest, depending on how strong you want the resulting drink to be.

Masato is prepared in large quantities in the days prior to the festive or celebratory occasion.

The use of the saliva of women chewers has been replaced, in many indigenous communities, by the addition of sugar, or aguardiente, or, in some cases, in urban contexts, by sodium bicarbonate to stimulate the fermentation of the dough.

Purposes of masate consumption.

The major distinction of fermented masato consumption is in the purpose.

As a courtesy of welcome.

Masato is the drink offered to the person visiting the native community.

It is offered in a pate, an individual container made from the dried fruit of a tree called totumo.

It is customary to take the portion at one time.

Hosts take great pride in offering it, and if the visitor rejects it, it is considered a grievance, which may impede a possible relationship in the process of being created.

The pate, once the drink has been ingested, should be turned upside down to express that the drink is satisfied and no more is desired (Daza-Rengifo 2006).

As a beverage in celebrations.

In the case of a feast, motivated by some reason, such as the beginning or end of planting or harvesting, or a successful hunting or fishing trip, a “masateada” is performed, which consists of singing and dancing taken masato almost non-stop.

The only purpose of each participant in the party is to drink as much masato as possible, with the purpose of getting drunk. Descola (2005: 253) referred, in this case, to the Achuar group, who live in the upper Amazon, between Ecuador and Peru.

There are some researchers who have written about the famous “masateadas yaminahua” (Pérez-Gil and Carid-Naveira 2013).

The Yaminahua are indigenous groups living in the headwaters of the Mapuya River in the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon.

The indigenous people gather periodically to consume large quantities of masato, to the sound of music and dance (see: Typical dances of the Amazon).

On that occasion they express their joy and generosity.

They do it until they get drunk, while dancing to technocumbia, their favorite rhythm, with the music at full volume.

Sometimes they get together to celebrate a national holiday, such as the Day of the Fatherland.

For “mingas” or collective works

The masato is also an integral part of the calls for a minga to carry out collective work, such as roofing a house, or cutting down a piece of forest to establish a farm.

The beneficiary is obliged to provide abundant masato, and food if possible, to the minga participants.

No masato, no party

Pérez-Gil and Carid-Naveira (2013: 269-270) say that without masato there is no party, and that the party only ends when the drinking is over, and can last for several days.

For this celebration, large quantities of masato are made, the basic mass of which is chewed by adolescent girls and young women with healthy teeth. It is also chewed by old toothless women.

Before chewing the dough, women usually rinse their mouths by chewing tender leaves of the guava tree, or coffee, or ñucño-pichana, which are bitter and astringent leaves that act as a mouth astringent.

A woman chewing dough for masato, chews each bite about 30 times, until she feels that she has become “watery”. It is then returned to the container to mix it with the rest, leaving it to ferment for three to five days.

The ingestion of the chewed mass by women has an erotic connotation, and is associated with blood, while male saliva is metaphorically associated with ejaculation.

Masato Casha-casha

The masato, to increase its intoxicating power, is left to rest for several days. Depending on the time, about three to five days, the masato becomes strong and with a slightly sweet and sour taste.

It is the masato casha-casha. A study by Daza Rengifo (2006:55) found that cassava masato fermented for two days contains, on average, 2.6 degrees of alcohol, while that which has been kept at rest for at least four days reaches 5.5 degrees of alcohol.

Another research conducted by Árevalo-Moncayo (2011), using cassava starch to obtain ethyl alcohol, determined that the alcohol content reached after days of fermentation reached 12.5 alcoholic degrees.

In the masateadas, the masato functions as “a generalized gift and its form of consumption is marked by excess”.

In the midst of the collective drunkenness, fights break out. Lathrap (2010: 88) points out that the masato can become, in the case of the masateada, a means to achieve and maintain the respect of an indigenous person in the eyes of his or her neighbors.

You are more powerful “if you offer a party that lasts longer, consumes more masato and triggers more drunken brawls than any other in memory”.

Surallés (2007: 321) mentions that before the masateada, the indigenous people, in this case referring to the Candoshi ethnic group, take infusions of the leaves of a plant they call vayoosa, which is none other than the guayusa (Ilex sp.)The first time that the patient is taken, with emetic effects, preparing for the masateada, where it is not customary to eat any solid food.

The consumption of masato in ritual celebrations

Goulard (2009: 133-137) studies the Ticuna, an ethnic group living between Peru and Brazil.

In the Ticuna cosmogony, each being has a corporal principle (an external process) and a vital principle (an internal process), which were granted at the moment of birth.

But the latter, unlike the former, is built progressively over the course of a lifetime.

To contribute to their development, the Ticuna celebrate periodic rituals in which masato is eaten.

Ritual is the social expression of the acquisition of the vital principle.

They clearly differentiate these rituals from the masateadas.

In the case of the ritual, the masato is consumed to the rhythm of a drum, which they call tutu. As they dance, men and women carry branches of the mota palm (Schoelea sp) on their backs.

Among the Ticuna, women chew the yucca dough to ferment it, but it is forbidden for pregnant women to prepare the masato, as it would acquire a very bitter taste, which would make it indigestible.

Is masato only made from cassava?

Masato is usually prepared with sweet yucca in almost all Amazonian indigenous communities.

However, other raw materials are also used to produce it.

Masato de maíz or chicha de maíz

Originally masato was made with corn, and was also called chicha de maíz. Or it was done with plantain, but then cassava became the most important crop in the chacra, in correspondence to the existence of numerous varieties of cassava, in some cases more than a hundred, and imposed itself as the main source for the elaboration of masato (Cartay 2016).

Masato of palm drupes

Drupes of Amazonian palm trees are also used to prepare the masato. This is the case among the Asháninka (Sosnowska, Ramírez and Millán 2010). For this purpose,(Euterpe precatoria), Ungurahui(Oenocarpus bataua), and even pandisho(Artocarpus altilis).

In many indigenous groups, the masato used in rituals is made from drupes of the pijuayo palm, abundant in the lower Amazon.

The nutritional value of masate

Masate is generally considered a food. And indeed it is.

According to the Peruvian Food Composition Table, masato is a food rich only in carbohydrates (8.90 g), but its contribution in other values is very low: poor in protein (0.20 g) and total fat (0.10), practically nil in fiber, and with a high percentage water content (90.4), which reduces its caloric or energy value to 37 Kcal per 100 grams.

Its vitamin content is very limited: 4.20 mg of vitamin C, as well as minerals; 11 mg of calcium, 140 mg of phosphorus and 0.60 mg of iron.

Its nutritional poverty per 100 g is compensated, in part, by the frequency of masato intake by the indigenous people every day, with several intakes, even instead of water.

The realization that masato made from cassava, or other raw materials, is the beverage par excellence of the entire Amazon basin has stimulated the development of some functional food programs, using some fermented foods traditionally consumed in the region.

Cassava masato in CYTED’s ProInfant Project (2018)

One of the foods included in this program is cassava masato. This has been the case with CYTED’s ProInfant project (2018), which is being advanced by more than seventy researchers belonging to seven Latin American countries and Italy.

Building collective memory (2018)

In Colombia, research is being conducted on tangible and intangible cultural heritage in the Colombian Amazon, within the framework of a project called “Building collective memory”, which includes gastronomic products such as cassava masato (Álvarez-Palacios et al, 2011).

Bibliography cited.

  • Álvarez-Palacios, A.C.; Barbosa-Mendoza, C.E.; Huérfano-Belisamon, A.A.; Pantevis-Girón, Y.A.; Quiceno-Gallegos, I.D. 2011. Amazon Cultural Heritage. Colombia: Building Collective Memory. National University of Colombia, Leticia campus. (Source)
  • Árevalo-Moncayo, A.M. 2011. Use of cassava starch to obtain ethyl alcohol. Undergraduate thesis. Food Engineering. Technical University of Ambato, Ecuador(Source).
  • Cartay, R. 2016. The Peruvian Amazon table. Ingredients, corpus and symbols. Lime. San Marcos University of Lima.
  • Chirif, A. 2016. Diccionario Amazónico. Lima: Lluvia Editores- CAAAP.(Source)
  • CYTED. ProInfant Project. 2018. Presented at the 12th BAL Network Meeting (PDF).
  • Daza-Rengifo, G. 2006. Sociocultural context of masato consumption and agrodiversity in the department of Pedro Felipe Luyaudo, Manzanillo, Junín. Postgraduate thesis. Universidad Nacional Agraria de la Selva. Tingo Maria, Peru(Source)
  • Descola, P. 2005. The spears of twilight. Jíbaro stories from the Upper Amazon. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica (PDF) (PDF)
  • Goulard, J.P. 2009. Between mortals and immortals. The self according to the Ticuna of the Amazon. Lima: CAAP/ IFEA.(Source)
  • Lathrap, D.W. 2010. The Upper Amazon. Lima: Institute Andean in Research / Instituto Cultural Runa (Source).
  • Pérez-Gil, L.; Carid-Naveira, M. 2013. Becoming other, becoming present: the Yaminahua masateadas (Peruvian Amazon). Revissta Española de Antropología Americana. Vol. 43, No. 1, 267-284.
  • Sosnowska, J.; Ramírez, D.; Millán, B. 2010. Palms used by the Asháninka Indians in the Peruvian Amazon. Peruvian Journal of Biology. Vol. 17, No. 3, December, Lima. (PDF)
  • Surrallés, A. 2007. The Candoshi. 237-375. F. Santos and F. Barclay (eds). Ethnographic Guide to the Upper Amazon. Vol. SAW. Lima: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute- IFEA. (Source)

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