Tucked away in the American continent’s southernmost region, Chile is a land of extreme climates and flanked by four thousand kilometres of coastline from its northern to its southern tip. But while this narrow country has secured a strong reputation for wine and agricultural produce, knowledge of its mestizo cuisine remains relatively scant.
Santiago, a city with the Andes as its backdrop, begins to feel some warmth now as summer approaches. On the street you can buy mote con huesillo, a refreshing and slightly sweet non- alcoholic drink made with dried peaches (huesillos), syrup and grains of cooked husked wheat, known as mote in the Andean regions. When I think of Chile – a country whose inhabitants, perhaps aware of their remoteness, like to give visitors a warm greeting – my mind fills with images of sharply defined landscapes and outdoor feasts of tender lamb roasted slowly over the coals. I also recall breakfasts of toast and avocado, and afternoon snacks of delicious empanadas de pino—wraps stuffed with ground beef, raisins, onion, black olives and nuts. And so much more besides. Chile offers so much more than just wine; at the far end of the world, a whole treasure trove of other flavours is waiting to be discovered.
ROOTS AND TRADITIONS
People do not usually come to Chile in search of gastronomic delights, because so little is known about its cuisine, an amalgamation of influences brought over by Spanish, Italian, English and German immigrants who settled in this vast territory, leading to a range of ingredients and techniques, both European and indigenous in origin. The Mapuche is one indigenous group whose gastronomic heritage has been kept very much alive in Chile. Traditional flavours can be found in the nuts gathered from the Chilean pine (araucaria araucana), a tree that is held sacred and produces seeds that some now use to prepare creamy sauces. The smoky and spicy Merquén – a powdered condiment made with sun-dried chilli peppers called ají cacho de cabra – adds another distinctly local seasoning that is used plentifully in Andean cooking. Chilean cuisine is essentially a product of the nature, resources and seasons in this country of extremes, with its eleven wine- growing valleys stretching the length the country, with its dense woodlands and lakes, and its long coastal strip. Chileans will eat all that the ocean offers up: sea urchins and the highly prized spider crab, prepared only with a few drops of lemon. Menus also include all manner of other unusual sea creatures, such as the piure (Pyura chilensis), a tangy invertebrate with a couple of protruding siphons. You either eat them fresh, if you are after an intense taste of the sea, or in well-stocked seafood broths. Different species are delivered to the municipal market of Santiago from all across the country. But this is nothing compared to the picturesque markets dotted along the warm coast of Valparaíso which runs all the way down to the glacial waters of Puerto Montt, where empanadas filled with seafood are a must. It is hard to forget the experience of a classic, home-style dish called chupe de locos al merquén – a creamy sauté based on bread dipped in milk, the molluscs (“locos”), and onion, topped by a golden layer of grated cheese that encloses gooey mature cheese to balance out the seafood flavour. Moving onto dry land, another favourite is the pastel de choclo, a dish prepared using tender corn, cooked in milk with lard and seasoned with aromatic herbs, cumin and onion, and sometimes served with chicken or meat. Both dishes are traditionally served in black, natural clay dishes (greda).
EXPLORING NEW FLAVOURS
Chile has a wide range of culinary traditions, and since the country is so elongated, both climate and cuisine change dramatically from one town to another. Visitors will find the flavours as unpredictable as nature’s whims in Patagonia. “Many parts of the country are still uncharted, creating some mystique about our cuisine,” says Rodolfo Guzmán, owner and chef of the BORAGó restaurant in the city of Santiago, where ingredients and sophisticated techniques arrive from all corners of the country. “Who knows what we might find tomorrow? As a chef, I find this amazing”. Guzmán opened his restaurant in 2007, a huge leap of faith in a country where haute cuisine has been synonymous with nouvelle cuisine. Ever since it began to operate, the kitchen of this particular restaurant-cum-laboratory has eschewed highfalutin techniques and instead focussed on using strictly local products.
This chef’s ingredients are sometimes new even to Chileans themselves and are sourced from the most unexpected of places, showcasing the country’s seasonal and climatic diversity. Guzmán’s cooking methods are the same as those used by the indigenous Pehuenche and Mapuche groups: he works on volcanic stones and employs different types of endemic wood for smoking food in a clay oven. New-fangled cooking techniques would be unlikely to surprise these groups, because 300 years ago they were already using the bark of the quillay tree on account of its properties as a stabilizing foam. Guzmán is always on the lookout for new ingredients, from the south with its almost constant winter, in stark contrast to the weather found in north and the Atacama Desert. He explores woods and valleys in search of inspiration, but most importantly he is always in contact with Chile’s indigenous communities, whom he credits for educating him and giving his work greater meaning. He is a forager-chef, as I was able to see for myself. We travelled south over 100 kilometres by car, until we reached Punta de Tralca, a rocky stretch of coastline. Our mission was to gather ulte, a type of algae with long tentacles also known as Cuchayuyo, which Guzmán would use that same afternoon for his Endémico menu as an amuse-bouche, a broth that is delicate and rich in umami, reminiscent of Oriental cuisine, and that must be sipped out of black greda cup, a ritual that forces you to enjoy the soup slowly. At BORAGó, the unique tastes of the dishes take you on an imaginary journey across Chile, a wild and rustic – yet innovative – adventure through its cuisine, consistently using ingredients that can come from nowhere else. Chilean cooking, with its rich cultural heritage and a wide variety of ingredients, offers an open invitation for you to explore its myriad flavours and landscapes.