Purple Maize

From left, Elvin Paulino, Señora Gladys Ramirez, daughter Emily and Elizabeth Paulino of La Candela Restaurant

From left, Elvin Paulino, Señora Gladys Ramirez, daughter Emily and Elizabeth Paulino of La Candela Restaurant

For Elizabeth Paulino the liquid garnet she is pouring into my glass is more than just a refreshing novelty drink she serves to her customers at La Candela Restaurant in Hicksville. For Paulino, who came to New York from the coastal Peruvian town of Ica in the late ’90s, chicha morada is an elixir of success and a symbol of the cultural and family ties she has created and maintained while establishing herself in a new country.

Chicha morada is an Andean soft drink that pre-dates Columbus made of pineapple and purple—yes purple—corn. Food history buffs may know Zea mays or maize originated in the Andes and that pineapple (Ananas comosus) was born in regions of Paraguay and southern Brazil. Both are combined in this drink, along with some decidedly Southeast Asian spices like cinnamon and clove, to create a tangy, antioxidant-packed beverage that, sweetened with sugar, is the preferred Peruvian soft drink and is catching on here. To dine in La Candela is to see a pitcher of sparkling chicha on every table.

Chicha morada is an Andean soft drink that pre-dates Columbus made of pineapple and purple—yes purple—corn.

La Candela is a family business, owned by Elizabeth and her husband, Elvin Paulino, from the Dominican Republic. Two of Elizabeth’s brothers cook at the restaurant, while her mother, Gladys Ramírez, known as Señora Gladys, is hostess. Daughter, Emily, at 10 a charming and completely bilingual young lady, assists whenever she can spare the time from homework.

“The first one to come was my father, 30 years ago,” says Elizabeth Paulino backed by a soundtrack of Andean pipes as I sit with all three generations in the sunlight that streams in from South Broadway and illuminates the many colorful textiles and paintings that tell you that this is a Peruvian domain. “When the situation in Peru became difficult, he was able to bring us here as residents. I had already finished college, but I arrived in this country without the language and therefore without opportunities. When I saw that I would have to start at zero, I got a job at Stop & Shop as a meat wrapper. I had good memories from my grandmother who had a food business in Peru, and then I learned the cuts of meat here, which are very different. With all that mix of experience and then when my mother arrived in 2004 and asked why we didn’t open something of our own, well, we decided to launch ourselves.”

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They started by taking over a small Central American deli down the block from their current location. Paulino offers me maíz cancha, toasted, seasoned corn kernels that you pop into your mouth like peanuts, to complement the chicha. “We continued the Central American dishes, so we wouldn’t lose the existing clientele, so we learned to make pupusas and tortillas. But little by little, we would add one or two of our dishes and they kept selling very well, and not just to Peruvians. People really wanted to try sopa de mote [corn and tripe soup] and ceviche [citrus-cooked seafood]. Then we put up a Peruvian flag outside and that was it; we had to expand because of all the customers.”

Just eight months after they opened the deli in 2007, they found a storefront pizzeria that was closing in a failing strip mall and converted that kitchen. Today La Candela occupies three storefronts and the whole strip mall is thriving.

“It started with a mostly Peruvian clientele,” says Señora Gladys. “But the word got around, and now we have all different kinds of people. It’s a family atmosphere and everybody likes that.” Saturdays and Sundays feature live Andean music.

The family atmosphere extends to the kitchen, where the staff cheerfully poke their heads into the chicha conversation. Segundo Gómez, of Lima, Peru, has been in La Candela’s kitchen for five years.

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He shows me the purple corn. It is truly purple and parched, with the dusky thumbnail-size kernels clinging to a crunchy cob. “With purple corn, the drier it is, the better the color,” says Gómez. “You also add cloves, cinnamon and pineapple peel. That gives it a lot of the flavor. You boil it strongly for an hour in abundant water. After straining it until it is free of impurities, you add sugar to taste and you serve it in pitchers with some lemon and pineapple chunks.”

The refreshing sweet-tartness and jewel-like color would be attractions enough, but Señora Gladys knows how to sell to her American audience.

“Purple corn lowers blood pressure; it has many nutrients and antioxidants,” she says enthusiastically. “It is millennial; the Incas produced foods for themselves with it, so it comes to us from our ancestors.” And indeed, studies have shown purple corn to be high in anti-inflammatory anthocyanins and higher than blueberries, pomegranates and acai berries in antioxidants. And in a pinch, you could dye cloth with it.

Elizabeth Paulino special orders the purple corn from a Peruvian supplier; it is the same place she gets the special pepper, ají, that puts the spike in ceviches like El Candelazo—a tower of power that includes shrimp, calamari and fried fish—and the many other excellent traditional dishes that people travel from Queens and out island to eat.

Studies have shown purple corn to be high in anti-inflammatory anthocyanins and higher than blueberries, pomegranates and acai berries in antioxidants. And in a pinch, you could dye cloth with it.

“Sometimes I can’t believe that God has been so generous to me,” says Elizabeth Paulino, surrounded by her mother and daughter in the thriving establishment she and her family have built. And together we all tuck into some generous helpings of ceviche, papas a la Huaincaína, potoates in a spicy cream sauce, and rice with shrimp (young Emily says I must come back for her favorite: lomo saltado, sautéed beef with onions), all washed down with cooling sips of that historic, yet somehow very modern, drink: chicha

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