Chilean Food: Stick with the Basics
Bloomberg News recently published a list of restaurants in Santiago, Chile, recommended for business travelers.The ones they recommend are reportedly good, predictably expensive, and conveniently located in the center of the city close to “Sanhatten”, the sterile business center inhabited by the local suits and close to the US embassy, that bastion of the self-defined culinary elite. Warning: what follows is not about these restaurants, nor the food they serve.
Beginning several years ago Peruvian cuisine took a firm hold on the restaurant scene in Santiago. Congruent with Santiago’s growth as an international business and tourist center, there is a more recent and expanding culinary offering of Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Middle Eastern food, not widely available previously in Santiago. In addition, one time scruffy neighborhoods like Patronato, Franklin, Lastarria, Avenida Italia, and parts of Nuñoa now abound with updated Italian, French, and Spanish restaurants alongside more casual offerings of elaborate burgers and other “sánguches“, the Chilean sibling of the sandwich. Of course there are the traditional Chilean and Argentine steak houses located throughout the outer neighborhoods of the city, like any other international urban center, catering to a population that stubbornly clings to the beef asado, smoked pork ribs, and crispy grilled sausages in spite of nutritional warnings to the contrary.
The emerging generation of enlightened Chilean chefs and cooks struggles to come up with something different to offer the increasingly affluent resident and growing tourist trade in Santiago. New combinations of ingredients, fancy sauces, elaborate embellishments, all presented as unique dishes “del autor“, expose some pretty outlandish albeit often tasty concoctions which are crafted to attract the young, risk taking customer, and can justify the higher prices and smaller plates that characterize this modern cuisine. And, as important, the ever improving Chilean wines, both red and white, that so many visitors come to Chile to explore, pair very nicely with any and all of these foods. Hence, according to the relevant travel and culinary media, Santiago is becoming an enticing international destination for foodies.
But when it comes to the overall Chilean food scene, there are two distinct Chiles. There is urban Chile, with Santiago attracting most of the attention, and there is rural and small town Chile. While the international travel magazines and culinary associations with their bought-and-paid-for awards for flashy, trendy restaurants highlight and promote the urban scene, herein we want to feature the latter, for while these places and their food are consistently overlooked and underappreciated, they reflect the dimension of Chile that daveschile.com thinks is worth knowing: its soul.
An excursion outside of Santiago, if taken slowly and focused on small towns, can be a rewarding trip into the simple sensuality of basic traditional Chilean food. No pretensions, no bells and whistles, just serious down home cooking, locally produced ingredients, and time proven cooks.
We are fortunate to have taken just such a trip over the past several weeks; to share it with you, here are some of the places, the foods, and the people we met along the way.
The book of Genesis notwithstanding, we prefer to believe it all starts with the egg, not the chicken. So, we will start our journey with huevos, eggs. Chileans love eggs. So do we. The first time I saw Chilean eggs in the farmers market I was taken aback; greenish ones, grey ones, reddish ones, brown ones.
That was fifty years ago, but those multicolored free range technicolor eggs are still around. Now Chileans eat mostly white ones from caged, “unhappy” hens, but if you want a greenish country fresh egg, you can find them readily in the produce markets outside of Santiago. Besides chicken eggs, tiny quail eggs abound and regularly appear, hard boiled, stuck in the end of a toothpick on cocktail platters alongside pieces of Chanco cheese and PF salame.
If you have ever lived or traveled in Chile, certainly you have had at least one paila de huevos. If you did, it was probably for breakfast, but it is also offered for afternoon “onces“, that misplaced Chilean snack that appears anytime between 4:30 and 7:00 in the afternoon. Eggs prepared in a paila can be scrambled, with or without chunks of ham or pieces of fresh tomato, or simply fried, but they have to be prepared and served up directly in the classic individual metal paila. Eggs are hotter and tastier eaten straight from the paila. If the handles of the paila are too hot to grab, they usually are, you can wrap one of those almost useless flimsy paper napkins (surprisingly still provided on the table in casual eating establishments) around one handle to hold so you can eat the eggs. You will need at least one hallulla or pan amasado to accompany the paila to dip in the yoke or on which to place the egg, making the dish complete. The Chilean paila de huevos should be awarded some sort of culinary prize, but I suspect it will fade away over time without its due reward, much like the recently deceased Chilean “antipoet” Nicanor Parra.
A culinary discussion that includes eggs requires that we introduce the concept of a dish served “a lo pobre“. Chileans will put fried eggs on top of almost anything, but especially on fried fish, any steak, even a pile of rice. When they put two fried eggs on a steak, along with caramelized onions and french fries, it is a bife a lo pobre. On a piece of fried fish, congrio for example, it is congrio a lo pobre. And so on. The name suggests that the fare might be a poor mans food, ironically it is really the opposite. Once you are outside of the snooty urban influence, “a lo pobre” is a well known, special form of eating, featuring fried eggs on top.
Increasingly, the eggs you eat in Chile will be from gallinas felices, hens which are happy because they have been uncaged and, as one B&B owner recently claimed, “…our hens know they will die of old age” and not end up in another classic Chilean dish, the cazuela de ave. (But that’s another story.)
If you are on the road at lunchtime, or any other time for that matter, one of Chile’s classic sandwiches will do. These may be called sandwiches, or the older Spanish label sánguches, but they are really full meals placed between two pieces of bread, which most people eat with a knife and fork. The lomito de chancho at the Cecinas Soler rest stop in Curicó is a fabulous sliced pork sandwich. It is large enough to share, but admittedly we, and most people, never do. The mashed avocado and creamy mayonnaise must be running down the side of the sandwich onto the plate, or you should send it back.
The churrasco italiano is sliced beef, Italiano only because it has mayonnaise, avocado, and tomato on it, the colors of the Italian flag. Another sandwich worth trying is either of the Barros brothers, Barros Luco or Barros Jarpa. (They were not really brothers. See story here). Chileans delight in watching a gringo try to eat these sandwiches with their hands, a la USA style, because It does not work.
However, lunch has usually been the favorite and most extensive meal of the day in Chile, especially in the countryside and small towns, so traditionally, and still, most Chileans will sit down to a serious lunch, not just a sandwich. A favorite lunch starter is palta reina, avocado halves (now mostly Hass variety) filled with tuna fish or chicken salad, set on a bed of lettuce and topped with a gob of mayonnaise.
A less common, tastier version is made with crab meat, but someone has to clean the meat from the crab shells so you will not get that option as often. Mayonnaise in the Chilean countryside is still apt to be home made, raw egg whisked with vegetable oil, but the processed version is increasingly creeping into more and more kitchens. When I first arrived in Chile fifty years ago, I lived in a small room in the home of a Chilean artist, Fernando Rojas, and his young daughter. I would eat lunch there most days, and many of those days I was served huevos a la Peruana, (eggs again) which I loved. Similar to the deviled eggs of my youth, they provided an occasional and welcome reminder of home.
Lunch anywhere along Chile’s long Pacific coast often starts with empanadas, those familiar Chilean fold-up pies you have seen before in this blog, or if your timing was right, eaten from Ximena’s kitchen in Mclean, Mount Olive, or Leesburg in Virginia, or Santiago, Chile.
The fried seafood empanadas at Dago and Maria’s La Roca restaurant in Loanco, Maule Province, are made with a mixture of chopped clam, abalone, and mussel meat with minced onions, cilantro, and red pepper.(Remember Dago and Maria from Loanco? There’s a good story here.)
Ximena’s signature fried empanadas are made with loco (abalone) and piures, called sea squirts in English.
Another must starter (also a main dish) is the tasty macha. Machas a la parmesana at Los Patitos in Algarrobo, on the coast west of Santiago, are made the old fashion way, freshly opened and topped with grated, aged parmesan cheese, maybe with a drop of white wine in the shell.
If they have them, you can also have scallops, ostiones, served the same way.
Of course the disappearing loco, Chilean abalone, is the favored starter, usually served cold or lukewarm, with salsa verde, a mixture of chopped parsely and onion, or mayonnaise. Maybe the controls to limit over exploitation of this very tasty snail like mollusk, combined with laudable efforts to farm these sea creatures under controlled conditions, will keep locos on the table, but in the meantime, when they are available, take advantage. There is nothing better, nor more Chilean, than locos. The locos we were served in Loanco and Dichato were fabulous, flavorful and tender.
Follow these appetizers up with a main dish of either merluza margarita or congrio frito. Margarita usually implies a creamy sauce of a mixture of shellfish, and a lo pobre is the best way to eat congrio, fried and served with french fries, sauteed onions, and of course topped with a fried egg (or two), as explained earlier.
Merluza is hake, and congrio is a conger eel, not really an eel, just eel-like! Machas are a type of pink clam. If none of this appeals to you, Los Patitos and many other coastal seafood places will offer a chupe de jaivas or ostiones al ajillo, different forms of crab meat and scallop casserole, oven-baked in a clay bowl; both are very tasty and filling. At Los Patitos they also take great pride in their flexible sensitivity, so “…for the vegetarians, we have chicken!”
Along the coast of the Maule region, further south, seaweed called cochayuyo or ulte washes up on the shore after breaking loose from its moorings in the surf. Apparently most Chileans were forced to eat some form of cochayuyo when they were growing up, and initially they all hated it. It is loaded with iodine, when dried for transport and storage it becomes ugly and brown. But it is nutritious and was inexpensive, so it was pervasive in the common Chilean diet “back when!” The indigenous populations in the southern lakes region relied on this and other seaweeds to provide the protein they did not get from meat. Many Chileans still crave a meal with cochayuyo, and Ximena’s sister, Maria Paz, makes a mean ulte ceviche, which she claims is loaded with so many antioxidants you’ll never be ill again. Have her along when traveling in coastal Chile and you will enjoy freshly collected and prepared ulte ceviche, to your everlasting good health.
The Maule region of central Chile is in many ways the most traditional, resistant to change in habits and customs. It is a great place for special refreshing summer snacks, like sandia con harina tostada and mote con huesillos.
In the midst of the summer heat, often hovering around 100 degrees at midafternoon, Chileans will stop what they are doing and share a slice of deep red watermelon, replete with pits and covered with smoky, toasted wheat flour, or a glass of juice with a whole peach and husked kernels of wheat. You must try these two refreshers, especially if you are anywhere near the Saturday fresh produce market in Cauquenes.
The south central part of Chile produces lots of corn, including the mammoth ears called choclo humero. This is the muscle bound cousin of US sweet corn that they shave off to make pastel de choclo and humitas. These huge ears provide husks big enough to wrap around the tamale-like humita.
The pastel de choclo is a whole meal, made not only with corn mash flavored with basil, chopped onion and maybe slightly hot pepper, but also a piece of chicken, some beef pino like the mixture that goes into an empanada de pino, a black olive and piece of hard boiled egg. Both these summer dishes should be eaten with ensalada Chilena, which is blanched feathered onions, fresh sliced tomato, and chopped ají verde.
Where there is corn there is usually beans. It may seem that beans would be a bit heavy for Chile’s summer heat, but a seasonal favorite lunchtime dish is porotos granados. Since we arrived about six weeks ago, we have eaten this dish in the popular Sociedad del Socorro in Cauquenes, the Lucerna Restaurante in San Carlos (birthplace of Violeta Parra and possibly Luisa Cusumano) where it was served with a big chunk of tender plateada, a pot roast type of classic Chilean meat, and at several friend’s homes all who claim to make the best porotos granados in Chile; they all do.
Porotos granados are ripe, fresh cranberry beans, a few kernels of corn, pieces of squash, and cumin, basil, and oregano. If you have helped desgranar, or shell, the beans and corn they taste all that much better. If there were one soul food in Chile, it would be porotos granados, although arguments could be made for the cazuela, the classic beef, chicken, pork or turkey soup. You can probably find the bean dish, porotos con riendas, or beans with reins (spaghetti), but it seems to be disappearing.
The common denominator in most of Chile’s traditional corn and bean dishes is fresh sweet basil, albahaca. It, along with the pervasive cumin, comino, and more recently the roasted hot pepper spice called merquén or Mapuche spice, provide the characteristic Chilean tint that makes them special.
Even though much of Chile’s traditional foods originate in the indigenous cultures, a couple of weeks traveling in the south of Chile expose you to a diverse array of traditions. Germans settled the lake region in southern Chile. So, in the beautiful town of Frutillar, on the shores of Lake Llanqihue, it makes sense to try an escalopa, a breaded beef cutlet, crispy fried, accompanied by rustic mashed potato laced with merquén in the lakeside German Club, and follow it up with a big piece of the town’s famous Kuchen (blueberry, apple, raspberry, nut) or a slice of torta de mil hojas bulging with manjar (simply slowly cooked, sweetened milk).
The German Club in Frutillar is a remnant of a type of popular eating place, the Social Club, that used to prevail in most all towns of medium to large size throughout Chile. A Club Aleman still exists in Puerto Montt and Osorno, towns along with Frutillar that were settled by German immigrants.
There are towns still with a Club Social, like Angol where the Club provides a swimming pool and several rooms for rent, and Lautaro, where we discovered not only a still welcoming creaky old restaurant but also a two lane bowling alley used to store cases of wine, a higher use to be sure. Some towns had a Club Español, like Linares, where their Club has been renovated and modernized.
Many towns had a Club de la Unión. The mother of all eating and social clubs is the Club de la Unión in Santiago, still quite strict regarding membership and attendance (admittedly, this is a club this writer has never been invited to attend, nor inclined to don a tie and jacket to enter). The one in Los Angeles in the Bío Bío Region of Central Chile is still hanging on. We visited this old, ornate, musty Club recently on a road trip to the south, and even though we were the only customers that weekday night, we were treated to a classic dinner of pisco sours, fried cheese empanadas, braised beef shortribs, leche asada (Chilean custard), a bottle of wonderful Cabernet sauvignon, and camomile tea.
A half century ago, there was the well known Protectora de Empleados Particulares in Valdivia, located in the damp basement of a building across from the central plaza. It was a great place, serving great seafood dishes, that welcomed even Peace Corps Volunteers and Mormons who needed a good meal and a drink or two. Unfortunately the building burned many years ago. But the riverside Guata Amarilla restaurant still serves up over sized platters of grilled meat and fish stews.
When there were very few alternatives in Chile’s towns and villages for eating out and meeting with friends, these social clubs provided very good food and a place for the “right” people to gather, drink, play the dice game cacho, and carry out business, politics, and other uncivil activities in the shadows and away from suspicious spouses and snooping relatives.
At this point, if you find yourselves in Frutillar, you have wandered close to the end of the Panamerican highway in Chile. A side trip from Frutillar to the coast of the Llanquihue province took us to Maullín, a fishing village along the Maullin river that helps empty Lago Llanquihue into the Pacific Ocean. There is a friendly family run restaurant in the newly completed municipal seafood market, Cocinería la Escafandra, where we were treated to chupe de picorocos, a true delicacy, and frankly a pleasant surprise. Picorocos do not show up often on menus any longer in Chile. What’s a picoroco? A big barnacle. A legitimate curanto, the seafood extravaganza originally from the Chiloe island, always used to have a picoroco sitting in the middle, with its birdlike beak sticking up through the opening in the crusty shell. The meat of the picoroco is similar to sweet crab meat, but, believe it or not, more difficult still to extract. Hence, a chupe de picorocos is a real treat. Someone has already extracted all the meat, mixed it with some herbs and spices, and baked it in a small casserole until the breadcrumbs on top are browned. In this case it was Isabel who did the work, and her chupe is a rare dish well worth the trip to Maullin, a mere 1,000 kilometers south of Santiago.
These are just a few of the traditional Chilean products and dishes we found on our recent journey, and which you will find if you get outside of the Capital city, Santiago. And this does not include the special treats found in the northern regions of this long country that extends for 5,000 kilometers north to south. To close this expose of classic, not fancy, Chilean food, we must include two very special regional meals typical of the Magallanes region, Chilean Patagonia: Cordero Magállanico, roast lamb, and centolla, king crab. A visit to Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, the two southern cities, gateways to the fabulous Torres del Paine National Park, must include at least one lamb roast, a portion of king crab, and a calafate sour. Don’t miss the chance to experience them all.
So what about the longaniza de Chillán, arrollado del huaso, caldillo de congrio, charquicán, and chupe de locos? Well, we will just have to do another road trip outside of Santiago, and promise to report back. Maybe next time we will begin with cazuela de ave, starting with the chicken instead of the egg, and go from there. Want to join us?
Posted in Santiago, Chile, on March 24, 2018.