Flavors of Chile
Not to be outdone by neighboring Peru and Argentina, whose culinary traditions are famous throughout South America and beyond, Chilean cooking is currently undergoing somewhat of a culinary renaissance with several pioneering chefs—like Benjamín Cienfuegos and Matías Palomo in the capital city of Santiago—taking traditional dishes and giving them a modern touch through molecular manipulation.
Highlights of Chilean cuisine include a bounty of regional seafood, like salmon, sea bass (corvina), and conger eel (congrio). Mussels and scallops are widely available, and locos (abalone) and jaiba (crab) are frequently prepared as chupes (stews) or pasteles (pies). In addition, due to the Central Valley's temperate climate, a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables are available, thus providing top-notch ingredients for a range of mouthwatering dishes.
Fish and Shellfish
Although there isn't much variety in the way it's prepared, Chilean fish is so tasty that you probably won't mind that your options are mostly limited to grilled, baked, or fried. A trip to Punta Arenas would not be complete without trying centolla (the local king crab), nor should you leave Easter Island without savoring a yellowfin tuna ceviche (made by marinating the fish in lemon juice and adding a selection of shellfish, as well as onions, bell peppers, chili, and cilantro). Many coastal towns have a central fish market where you can buy fresh catch or enjoy a paila marina (a seafood stew that is a mouthwatering combination of white fish, plus shellfish such as mussels, scallops, and razor clams, and white wine and seafood broth).
Asados (barbecues) are a national pastime, and any excuse—from birthdays to baptisms to national holidays—is used to start up the grill. While the uninformed might liken the country's asados to their North American counterpart, the Chilean version starts with choripan, a spicy sausage served in a bun and topped with pebre, a mixture of tomatoes, cilantro, onions, and chilies, as well as mayonnaise. Women are generally relegated to making salads (with ensalada a la chilena being a firm favorite) and providing drinks, including the obligatory pisco sour, while men gather 'round the barbecue offering advice to the official parrillero (designated grill master).
Although Chilean cuisine is not renowned for its spice, the indigenous Chilean seasoning, merken (merquén), is added to many of the country's dishes, providing a flavorful touch. Hailing from the native Mapuche tribe in southern Chile's IX Region, merken is a powdered mixture of cacho de cabra chili, toasted coriander seeds, and salt. It is used to season everything from peanuts (for a tasty snack) to meats, such as venison and duck.
Along with the ubiquitous empanada, some of the most popular fast foods in Chile are the completo (humble hotdog in a bun), churrasco sandwich (thin strips of beef on your choice of white sliced bread or in an oversized bun), and lomito (a pork sandwich). Since all of them are available with a mind-boggling array of toppings, you just can't go wrong. An italiano will get you a mountain of avocado, diced tomato, and mayonnaise; the dinámico version adds sauerkraut to the mix; and thechacarero has green beans and green chilies. A common accompaniment for all of these is ají chileno, a spicy local version of ketchup.
Chiloé is famous not only for its churches but also for its unique dish called curanto. No trip to the south would be complete without trying it, especially since the ritual of cooking the dish usually becomes an event in itself. The stew is prepared outdoors buried in a pit in the ground, which is lined with stones that have been heated to red-hot over an open fire. Layers of shellfish, sausage, smoked pork ribs, potatoes, and pulses are added, and then covered with sodden earth and damp sacks to create a kind of pressure cooker. Everything is left to cook for an hour or so. Curanto is usually served with milcao, a moist and delicious potato cake steamed above the curanto; don't let its rather unappetizing gray color put you off.
Robust and comforting Chilean dishes such as Mapuche charquicán (a hearty beef stew with potatoes, squash, and other vegetables) and cazuela (a beef or chicken casserole) are popular to ward off the chill of winter. Humitas (a lightly seasoned corn paste wrapped in corn leaves, normally eaten plain or sprinkled with sugar as a main course) and pastel de choclo (a mixture of minced beef, chicken, olives, hard-boiled egg, and raisins, topped with a layer of creamy mashed corn and served in a heavy clay bowl) are more common in the summer, when their main ingredient, corn, is in season.
Walk into one of the ferias (street markets) during summer months and you will be overwhelmed by the colors and smells of all the freshly grown fruit. Papayas are particularly plentiful in Easter Island and La Serena, where they are used to make liquor and sweets. A wide range of berries—strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries—are grown in the central and southern regions and used to make fresh juices and tasty kuchen (tarts). Custard apples (chirimoyas), with their mottled green skin and creamy texture, are divine on their own or can be made into juices or to flavor ice cream. It is not unusual to see succulent football-size sandías (watermelons) being sold at the side of the road on the highways leading to Santiago. And given Chile's reputation as a major wine-producing nation, it goes without saying that succulent table grapes are widely available.
Manjar (known as dulce de leche in other South American countries) is a national obsession. Made from boiled condensed milk, this caramel-like sweet substance is used as a filling for everything from alfajores (two cookies sandwiched together and covered in chocolate) to crepes. Chilean desserts are just not the same without it. Manjar is also sold in bar form and can be found at almost every street kiosk. It's commonly used as an ice cream flavor, often combined with nuts or banana.
You can order an empanada as a starter or a main course. These come most commonly as empanadas de pino—stuffed with meat, onions, olives, egg, and raisins, or with queso (cheese); occasionally they'll be stuffed with mariscos (shellfish).
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