Sunday, August 03, 2008

Cancha: A Brief History

Cancha is the toasted corn that is often served at Peruvian restaurants, as something to nibble on prior, and during, your meal. Sometimes, cancha is added as a topping to ceviche, adding a nice crunchy contrast to the dish.

At my grandparent's house, where I grew up, in addition to bread, we always had hot, salty,
cancha as an accompaniment for our main meal, lunch. That combination of bread and cancha on the table perfectly symbolizes the two essences of Peru: the bread, Spanish, and the cancha, Andean.

In his Dictionary of Traditional Peruvian Gastronomy, Sergio Zapata Acha, (2006 winner at the Gourmand World Cookbooks Awards, as noted at this link ), tells us a little bit of the history of this simple, yet important Peruvian food:

"[The word] comes from the Quechua
cancha, meaning toasted corn, and according to Rodríguez (1875) 'is a commonly used Peruvianism.'

In the Moche language,
cancha is known as quersu.

Cancha is called 'mayz tostado' (toasted corn) in the Quechua-Spanish Dictionary by González Holguín (1608).

In 1612, Luvovico Bertonio, notes the Aymara word
hampi for toasted corn.

Advertencias, a chronicle from 1545, Juan Ruiz de Arce o Albequerque, tells that in 'Tangaraya' (Tangarará, in Piura): 'They don't eat bread, they eat corn toasted and cooked, and serve this as if it were bread.'

Cancha is normally prepared as follows: In a clay pot, on a low heat, with a bit of lard, you add yellow corn with a bit of ground salt, and you don't stop moving it around until the grains are golden brown, taking care not to burn them.

Antonio Manrique Chávez, auther of
El maíz en el Perú (Corn in Peru), writes: 'In the Southern regions, they use a clay pot, in which fat is heated, and when it is very hot, they add the dry corn, constantly moving it with a wooden spoon until it is evenly cooked and releases its characteristic odor. [...] In the Central and Northern regions, the cooking is done in pans, and they use oil to cook [the corn] uniformly.'

Juan de Arona calls
cancha, 'toasted corn'.

According to Fidelis del Solar, in his 1876
Reparos al Diccionario de Chilenismos (Notes to the Dictionary of Chilenisms), the word cancha is 'common to all the Hispanic-American republics...', giving Juan de Arona credit for the acceptance of its use. Del Solar even mentions cancha in a poem (1876):

Viva la chicha que ensancha
los anímos apocados,
Y viva la chomba ancha,
Y viva también la cancha,
Que es pan comido a puñados.

Long live
chicha (the fermented corn drink) which lifts up
Darkened spirts,
And long live the wide-mouth
chomba (vessel in which to drink chicha),
And also long live
That is bread eaten by the fistful."

And you thought it was just some toasted corn at your table.

Source: Sergio Zapata Acha, Diccionario de Gastronomía Peruana Tradicional (Lima, 2006), translated by yours truly.

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TAGS: Peru, Peruvian, food, cooking, cuisine, cocina, comida, gastronomía, peruana


Charles C Stirk Jr said...

thanks for that I had all ways wondered but never asked ....

::Alejandro:: said...

every day we have to learn something new huh? thanks for the comment...saludos!

Canelita said...

I really enjoyed this post, Alejandro, being very fond of cancha myself. I particularly like it with “leche de tigre”, but when it’s toasted with lots of hot oil and gets very starchy, it’s a real treat just by itself. It sort of pops and melts in your mouth, yummy…and what an astute observation you make about that marriage of accompaniments, bread and cancha, I certainly had never thought of it that way.

The post reminded me of a nice paragraph that Inca Garcilaso de la Vega dedicates to “zara”, or “corn” in his famous 1609 chronicle _Royal Commentaries of the Incas_. I share it here with you—notice the cute linguistic observations he makes:

“…Y me sustenté hasta los nueve o diez años con la “zara”, que es el maíz. Cuyo pan tiene tres nombres: “zancu” era el de los sacrificios, “huminta” el de sus fiestas y regalo, “tanta”, pronunciada la primera sílaba en el paladar, es el pan común. La “zara” tostada llaman “camcha”: quiere decir “maíz tostado”. Incluye en sí el nombre adjetivo y el sustantivo. Débese pronunciar con m, porque con la n significa “barrio de vecindad” o “un gran cercado”.”

Here’s a rough translation of mine:

“…And I was fed until I was nine or ten years old with “zara”, which is corn. And whose bread has three names: “zancu” was the one used for sacrifice, “huminta” the one for festivities and for gift-giving, “tanta”, the first syllable pronounced in the palate, is the common bread. Toasted “zara” is called “camcha”: it means “toasted corn”. It contains both the adjective and the noun in itself. It must be pronounced with m, because with n it means “neighborhood” or “a great enclosure, or fenced court”.”

Source: Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Comentarios Reales de los Incas (1609). Carlos Araníbar, ed. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.

By the way, I had not mentioned it before, but it’s wonderful to have you back in Peru Food, Alejandro… :-)

::Alejandro:: said...

Thank you so much for that excellent addition to this post, Canelita, and for your kind words.

Juancho said...

Welcome back, Alejandro!

A footnote: In Ecuador popcorn seems to be consumed almost as often as cancha, and is often added to cebiches, while cancha and mote both make appearances alongside traditional dishes such as chicharrones, which in Ecuador are called "fritada". Popcorn is "canguil" and cancha is called "tostado" in Spanish and "camcha" in Quechua (which is there called Quichua).

::Alejandro:: said...

Hi Juancho! Thanks for the additional information. I wouldn't be surprised if some type of 'cancha' is consumed in all the Andean countries. Saludos!

Anonymous said...

Can you make cancha with regular popcorn that you buy in the US? Wouldn't it just pop?
i love cancha, and i knew how to make it in Peru. I brought back my clay pots, so I'm all ready to try here!



::Alejandro:: said...

Hi Marian! I'm not 100% sure but I think American popcorn would pop open. But, the good news is, you can now buy the special corn for making cancha online from various sources, and depending on where in the US you live, you may even be able to buy it at a shop, as we can here in LA. Just Google 'Peruvian food market' and you'll get some leads. Also, if where you live there are any Peruvian restaurants, call them up and ask them. So, the short answer is no, I think you have to use a special type of corn, and the long answer is everything else I wrote above. Good luck!

Pico said...


the question is if you can get maiz serrano to make cancha. I remember having some from Ayacucho and not only did it smell wonderful, it was unlike any other cancha I have ever had.


::Alejandro:: said...

Pico: You can now buy the special corn for cancha here in the US, I even see it at my local Latino market here in LA, but of course, it's never quite the same as the corn in Peru.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful website! I have fallen madly in love with a wonderful man from Lima and I am excited about learning his culture and making him feel at home by learning the things he loves. Thank you so much!

::Alejandro:: said...

@ Anonymous: thank you for your comment and good luck with your relationship.