New arrivals won’t need to wait long before coming across cancha, a form of Peruvian toasted corn found throughout the country. You’ll find it in upscale restaurants and expensive bars; you’ll see it served in street-side canteens and sprinkled on ceviche; you may also see it eaten from the pockets of rural farmers as they labor on the land.
This initially nondescript-looking snack and sometime-ingredient spans class boundaries in the same way that it has spanned the course of time...
A Brief History of Cancha
Cancha has been a staple food in the Andean regions of South America for many centuries, predating the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and existing long before the Inca Empire reached its peak.
Inca Garcilaso de la Vega mentions cancha in his Comentarios Reales de los Incas, first published in 1609: “La zara tostada llaman camcha: quiere decir maíz tostado... Débese pronunciar con m, porque con la n significa ‘barrio de vecindad’ o ‘un gran cercado’” (“Toasted zara [corn] is called camcha: meaning toasted corn... You must pronounce it with m, because with n it means ‘neighborhood’ or ‘a great enclosure’”). Cancha is also included within González Holguín’s Diccionario Quecha-Castellano (Quechua-Spanish Dictionary) of 1608, as well as being mentioned in Advertencias, the chronicles of Spanish conquistador Juan Ruiz de Arce, published in 1545.
As for the spelling, Inca Garcilaso’s insistence on the m didn’t stand the test of time. In Peru, the word cancha has become standard (despite its various alternate meanings, including “soccer field” and -- sometimes confusingly -- “popcorn”). The word itself comes from Quechua, the second most spoken language in Peru, where it is written as camcha or kancha. In Ecuador and Bolivia, cancha is more commonly referred to as tostado or tostado de maíz (toasted corn).
Cancha is made with dried chulpe corn (maíz cancha chulpe), which has a medium-sized, yellowish kernel. Unlike the corn used for popcorn, chulpe does not puff up when heated.
To make cancha, lard or oil is first heated in a clay or metal pot (according to Maria Baez Kijac in The South American Table, the best cancha is made with leftover lard from frying pork). Once the oil is hot, the dried corn is added and stirred constantly until it turns a golden brown. The corn is then transferred to another pot or bowl and sprinkled with salt.
The cancha is then typically served warm or at room temperature, but can be eaten cold up to a few days after preparation (a fact that made it a useful food source during long journeys in pre-Columbian and colonial times).
Where You’ll Find Cancha in Peru
As noted above, cancha is an ever-present nibble in Peru. It is often served in restaurants while you wait for your meal, and has become a standard addition to ceviches. Cancha is also served as a free accompaniment to alcohol -- typically beer -- in bars across the country. As with other barroom nibbles such as popcorn, peanuts and chips, the saltiness of cancha promotes the continued consumption of thirst-quenching alcoholic beverages.
Don’t be put off if your first experience with cancha is a negative one. When poorly prepared, cancha can have a chalky or powdery consistency with less than tasty results. After a few positive experiences, however, you might find yourself strangely addicted to these toothsome toasted kernels from Peru...