Chilean food: what you need to know

Chilean food, home to the potato and the strawberry, used to be known for its bland flavours. That has changed as the country has rediscovered the indigenous origins of its cuisine. Here's what you need to know before taking your holiday
Porotos granados. Photo: Shutterstock
Porotos granados. Photo: Shutterstock

Pablo Neruda’s Oda al Caldillo de Congrio (Ode to Conger Eel Soup) is a recipe in verse that lingeringly savours each step in making this rich and fragrant soup from the “giant eel with snow-white flesh.” Flavoured with potatoes, onion, and garlic, this is one of Chile’s most traditional and best-loved dishes. The poet was mistaken on one count: congrio isn’t – despite the common belief in Chile – an eel at all, but a fish known internationally as kingclip. But Neruda’s ode – as do the many others he wrote about the simple joys of Chilean food – makes no mistake about the satisfying pleasure of a steaming bowl of caldillo, especially on a cold winter day. Congrio, with its springy white flesh, is also popular frito (fried), when it is traditionally served with ensalada chilena (a salad of sliced tomato and blanched onions). 

“If you visit Chile without trying congrio frito, you haven’t really been there,” warns Chilean chef Carlo von Mühlenbrock.

In Santiago, the Mercado Central, the city’s old fruit and vegetable market by the River Mapocho, is a good place to try congrio. The main restaurant, Donde Augusto, has become over-priced but, at the smaller restaurants around the edge of the market, you’ll find excellent caldillo and congrio frito at modest prices, as well as corvina (sea bass) and a variety of the shellfish that flourish in the cold Antarctic waters that are carried up the Chilean coast by the famous Humboldt Current.

Another of the treats not to be missed in Chile is the cordero (lamb) that is raised in the far south of Chile around the Magellan Strait. It has a special taste attributed to the sea winds that feather the grass with salt, and to the fact that, in this area’s virtually virgin pastures, the land is free of herbicides and insecticides. Unfortunately, though, lamb is not very popular in Chile (most of the Magellan lamb goes straight for export) and, except in Patagonia, it tends only to be served in more expensive restaurants.

Chile is also famous for its farmed salmon which, over the past 20 years, has developed into a major export industry. Salmon is rarely absent from a restaurant menu in Chile and is widely considered to have a more pleasant, less strong taste than that of Norwegian or Scottish salmon. It was the target of international criticism for the industry’s heavy use of antibiotics and its poor environmental practices but, in recent years, following a devastating outbreak of a salmon virus, important improvements have been made on both fronts.

Feast on fresh fruit

Chile’s fresh fruit is also not to be missed if you visit in spring or summer. Too infrequently served in restaurants – on the grounds that fruit is not a “real” dessert – it is a delight. If you visit the Sernatur tourist office on Santiago’s Providencia Avenue, you’ll find an excellent fruit and vegetable market just around the back of the building. In summer, the roads are lined with stalls offering the pick of the season: plums, strawberries, peaches, apricots, figs, cherries, melons, watermelons and kiwis, and, as autumn approaches, the famous Chilean grape, sweet and luscious. And, during a spring visit, don’t neglect to try the chirimoyas (custard apples), a sweet and fragrant fruit grown mostly around La Serena, and best eaten just with a dressing of freshly squeezed orange juice. Prickly pears, or tunas, are as common as apples in Chile, where they droop like large, green teardrops on cactus arms. They are particularly popular crushed and blended into refreshing juices, with the pips filtered out.

When sampling Chilean food, it is hard not to miss the paltas (avocados) that have also become an important export. They are excellent and will turn up in nearly all your salads, on most hamburgers and, in mashed form, on completos (hot dogs).

Curanto: a traditional and uniquely Chilean stewCuranto: a traditional and uniquely Chilean stew. Photo: Shutterstock

Back to the country's indigenous roots

Some scientists believe that the potato originated in Chile, probably in the Chiloé archipelago 13,000 years ago – although Peru disputes this – before spreading to the Andean altiplano where the Spanish conquistadors found it in the mid-16th century. Even today, the potato forms a staple part of the Chilotes’ diet as, for example, in milkao, a traditional flat bread made with grated potatoes and fried in lard or steamed on top of a curanto (a Chilote stew cooked over red-hot stones in a hole in the ground). And, on the smaller islands of the archipelago, many varieties have survived, some with graphic names like the long thin black potato that is known as mojón de gato (cat’s dung). It is, therefore, all the more surprising that only one standard variety of potato is generally sold in Chilean supermarkets or served in the country’s restaurants. But that is changing; eyeing a new market, small farmers have begun to rescue and produce varieties that did not previously reach consumers.

Carlo von Mühlenbrock is one of a generation of Chilean chefs who rebelled against the international, and frequently undistinguished, fare that used to be standard in most Chilean restaurants. “Restaurant owners used to think that local dishes weren’t chic; they scorned them as rustic and not sophisticated enough,” he recalls. But that has also changed. Until a few years ago, most Chileans had never heard of merkén, a Mapuche seasoning. However, thanks to research by von Mühlenbrock and other like-minded chefs, it is now a common feature of restaurant menus. A red spicy paste that the Mapuches spread on bread or use to liven up stews, it is made from red chili peppers – traditionally smoked by being hung above the cooking fire in Mapuche homes – which are then ground to a powder with cilantro (coriander) seeds, garlic, and salt, and mixed with water when needed.

Another popular addition to restaurant menus are piñones, the fruit of the monkey puzzle tree, and the staple diet of the Pehuenches, the branch of the Mapuches who live in the Andes mountains. The Pehuenches use piñones to make bread, or simply eat them boiled, much like chestnuts, which they resemble in taste, although not in their long, thin shape. Today, you may find piñones served as a garnish alongside a piece of meat.

Traditional homemade humitas of cornTraditional homemade humitas of corn: a must-try on your tour of Chilean food. Photo: Shutterstock

Don't forget the favourites: beans and sweetcorn

The Chilean word for beans – porotos – is believed to originate from the language of the Quechua people of the Andes, but beans were also an important part of the Mapuche diet.

Beans are popularly eaten in Chile as a rich summer soup known as porotos granados. This is made from shelled haricot beans, pumpkin, onion, and sweetcorn, seasoned with basil, and is usually eaten with chopped tomatoes and chili pepper but, in the countryside, sometimes comes with a beefsteak (bifstek) on top. Porotos con riendas – literally, beans with reins – is a bean stew with spaghetti added, a typically rural dish that is rather despised by urban Chileans. But there is wisdom in the hearty mixture; recent research has shown that it is an ideal mix of readily-digested proteins.

Sweetcorn, which is known as choclo (the Quechua name for corn) is also used in many other Chilean dishes, but the most famous are humitas and pastel de choclo. Humitas are the Chilean equivalent of the tamales found in many other Latin American countries, with the difference that they contain only mashed corn – no meat, as is often the case in other countries – and are always wrapped in corn leaves and not, for example, banana leaves. Humitas are usually served with ensalada chilena and finely chopped chili pepper, although some Chileans prefer to eat them with sugar.

Pastel de choclo has a minced-meat base that includes quarters of hard-boiled egg, olives, and sometimes a piece of chicken, and is covered with a mashed corn layer. It is, in fact, much like a cottage pie, with corn replacing the potato. Raisins are often added to the meat base, and sugar is sometimes sprinkled over the corn top before it is put in the oven to brown.

The popular empanada – a savoury pastry turnover – is found in most Latin American countries, although the name varies, and has a definite Spanish origin. In fact, it traces its roots back to the hollowed-out loaf of bread in which European farmworkers used to carry their mid-day meal to the fields.

In Chile, it is most commonly filled with pino – the same mixture of minced meat, onions, hard-boiled egg, olives, and raisins that is used in pastel de choclo. In this version, it is baked in the oven, but there is also a tasty fried version, with a flakier pastry, that is filled with cheese.

On the coast, empanadas de mariscos – filled with shellfish and, typically, the rosy-fleshed macha razor clam – are a popular alternative. Another Chilean favourite, cazuela, is a winter dish. It starts with a meat (carne) broth in which potato, pumpkin, corn, and peppers are cooked. The dish arrives at the table as a sea of steaming soup, with large vegetable and meat islands, under which a bed of rice is discovered. As well as beef, this is often made with chicken or turkey and, in the latter case, is sprinkled with chuchoca (milled corn that is similar to Italy’s polenta). This is a very hearty meal and is usually cheap.

While not considered as fine as Argentine meat, Chilean cattle produce very creditable steaks, which are served up in restaurants known as parrilladas and at the asados (barbecues) with which Chileans love to celebrate everything from birthdays to national holidays. The parrilladas cook every type of meat over a charcoal grill – anything from a steak to a sausage or chop. In some of the campesino (farming) areas, you can find great cheap parrilladas, usually with a big fire in the middle of a rustic, checked table-clothed room, complete with a guitar-playing huaso (cowboy). This is a good place to try a prieta, a Chilean blood sausage. If you simply order a parrillada, you’ll get meat grilled (possibly at the table). It is also quite common to order pure entrails, if you like them.

Homemade alfajores cookiesHomemade alfajores cookies are a delicious Chilean dessert. Photo: Shutterstock

Post-Conquest influences on Chilean food

Chileans consider – with some justification – that their cuisine is a poor relation to Peruvian and Mexican cuisines, undeniably the most varied and interesting in Latin America. The difference, says Carlo von Mühlenbrock, is explained largely by the lack of post-Conquest influences in Chile. The lack of the African influence that is so clear in Peru reflects the fact that few black slaves were taken to Chile, and those that were did not, except in the far north, survive its harsher climate. And the Chinese and Japanese immigrations that, in Peru, merged with the local cuisine, to produce the chifa and nikkei cuisine, were virtually absent in Chile.

In addition, argues von Mühlenbrock, Chilean society was less permeable to outside influence, perhaps partly because of its difficulty in establishing control over Mapuche lands. That also explains, he says, why there are so few regional variations in Chilean food. “An empanada is an empanada from Arica to Punta Arenas because that’s the way Chileans wanted it to be,” he notes.

In fact, only two post-Conquest influences have played a significant role in the development of Chilean food – Italian and German cuisine. Italian immigration into Chile was small, but pasta is a common main course in restaurants and homes, a custom probably learned through Argentina, where Italian immigration was far more important and pervasive than in Chile. The German influence is seen most strongly in the Lake District of the south, which is where most settlers from Germany arrived in the 19th century. This may explain the importance that cabbage now has in the Mapuche diet, and it is certainly reflected in the widespread use of the word küchen to describe any sort of fruit tart.

Küchen is, in fact, one of the few traditional sweet pastries in Chile. However, in the sweet line, manjar is very popular. Similar to Argentina’s dulce de leche (which literally translated means milk jam), manjar is traditionally made by slowly boiling up a mixture of milk and sugar, flavored with a vanilla pod, until it thickens and turns a light caramel brown. It turns up in alfajores (two biscuits sandwiched together with manjar) and, for example, in dulces de La Ligua, cakes of sponge or meringue filled with manjar. La Ligua is just off the Pan American Highway travelling north around an hour and a half out of Santiago, and the dulces are well worth the detour, although they can also be acquired in bakeries in Santiago.

Pollo con arroz: chicken and rice is another typical Chilean dish.Pollo con arroz: chicken and rice is another typical Chilean dish. Photo: Shutterstock

A typical day of dining

Breakfast is desayuno. In most residenciales this will simply be bread with jam and butter (mermelada y mantequilla) and coffee or tea. Coffee will almost certainly be instant. Café con leche (with milk) is milky coffee; if you want just a little milk, ask for un café cortado. Tea-lovers should prepare themselves for a challenging time in Chile. Asking for a cup of tea usually gets you a tea bag in a cup of hot, but not necessarily boiling, water. Beware, also, of asking for milk with your tea. This will almost certainly be warm and often in a larger quantity than you anticipated.

A fuller breakfast can be ordered anywhere that serves desayuno. Eggs and toast (huevos con tostadas) should be no problem. Fried eggs are huevos fritos, scrambled are revueltos, poached are pasados, hard-boiled are huevos duros, and soft-boiled are a la copa.

Lunch (almuerzo) is served after 1.30pm and can run until around 4pm. Set lunches (colación or menú del día) are usually very good value, and give you the opportunity of trying something typical without having to know what to order. As a starter, you’ll be served a little salad, before a main dish of perhaps porotos granados (bean stew) or pollo con arroz (chicken with rice), and then there may be a little postre (dessert). Tea or coffee, or a soft drink, is usually part of the deal.

In Chile, late afternoon, between 5 and 7pm, is somewhat confusingly the time for onces (elevenses). These usually include tea, coffee, sandwiches, and cakes. The name is said to come from the British custom of having “elevenses,” a late-morning snack. An alternative theory is that this used to be the time when the man of the house would sneak off for a peaceful drink of aguardiente, the local firewater, the name of which contains 11 letters.

As in most Latin American countries, dinner (cena) isn’t served until after 8.30pm, and usually runs on until late. If you don’t drink coffee after dinner, try an aguita, a fresh herb tea found everywhere.

Drinking water, even in small towns and villages, is of excellent standard. However, because of the Andes Mountains, it can contain a high level of mineral salts that sometimes upsets visitors. Bottled water is, however, readily available even in the smallest restaurants. Alternatively, try the fruit juices. In both the cartons sold in supermarkets and in restaurants, these come in two types − freshly squeezed and reconstituted from pre-prepared pulp − of which the latter may be too sweet for some tastes.

Ready to start your exploration of Chilean food? 

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