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CHILEAN FOOD - WHAT TO EAT IN CHILE

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The assignment was clear: to find chiles in Chile. It all sounded so simple — until we started to do our research. Only then did we discover that the name of this elongated South American country is derived from the Auraucanian Indian word chili, meaning cold, or winter. For these early immigrants, Chile was considerably cooler than their equatorial homelands. (Any similarity with the English word "chilly" is strictly coincidental.)

In spite of our wishful thinking, Chile's name had no connection, whatsoever, to the fiery capsicum. In fact, the Chileans thought it was hilarious that we called hot peppers the same name as their country. For them, they were simply aji.

Chef Fischer with Chilean dishes, Hyatt Regency Santiago
Chef Fischer with Chilean dishes, Hyatt Regency Santiago
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Grand Hyatt Santiago

We enlisted the expertise of Chef Robert Fischer, at the Grand Hyatt Santiago. At Anakena, the Hyatt's market-style restaurant, diners select their meal from an array of ultra-fresh seafood, meat and vegetables, and have it prepared either continental or Thai-style. The latter can be mild, medium or hot.

We requested the hot rendition of stir-fried beef with chile sauce, and it arrived, nuclear enough to melt the Andean snowcaps. Quenching the flames with chunks of the best bread in Santiago, we asked Chef Fischer if he could prepare us a spicy Chilean dish.

"Most Chilean dishes don't contain chiles," he admitted. "The most famous is pastel de choclo. It's a corn and meat pie, baked in an earthenware dish. The topping is grated corn, cooked with milk, fresh basil, and sugar."

Gourmet seafood

Sensing our disappointment, he mentally searched for something else. "Pil-pil," he stated, with excitement. "It's made with white shrimp, fresh water prawns or crayfish. You sauté the seafood in olive oil and garlic, then add white wine, butter, and red chiles, cut into rings."

We placed our order. The seafood was wonderful, and the fragrant, bubbling-hot sauce so good that we couldn't resist soaking up every last drop with our bread.

Still pensive, Chef Fischer seemed at a loss for other hot Chilean dishes. "Here in Chile, we eat a lot of empanadas, meat-filled turnovers, which we tend to bake, rather than deep-fry," he adds. "I put chile powder in them, but they're not really hot. What most Chileans do, if they want to spice them up, is to eat them with pebre sauce."

Central Market

Fish vendors in Central Market
Fish vendors in Central Market
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Suddenly his eyes lit up. "Pebre is very Chilean," states Fischer. "It goes with everything. Since chiles are seasonal, people often preserve them in salt water or oil, or make up sauces and store them in the fridge, to use when they can't get fresh peppers."

Fortunately, our visit during March was at the tail-end of Chile's summer. Chef Fischer advised us to check out the Central Market in Santiago. "Look for three types of peppers," he instructed. "There are the long red ones, which are the hottest, long green ones, and smaller green ones. Just ask for aji."

The next morning, at the market, it was the seafood that first caught our eyes. Vast counters of eel-like cóngrio, giant shoe-sized mussels, barnacles and spiky green sea urchins. Noting our curiosity, one of the vendors split an urchin in half, to reveal five orange "tongues," which devotees devour raw with a splash of lemon juice.

Hot sauce

So enraptured were we with the marine edibles that we almost forgot the purpose of our visit. When we finally steered ourselves towards the colorful stands of avocados, tomatoes and garlic, we found plenty of chiles, especially the long red ones, which the vendors called cachos de cabra, goat horns.

We spotted a stand decorated with strings of ruby peppers. Topping the counters, filled with empanadas, marinated mushrooms and salads, were bottles of hot sauce and containers of pebre sauce.

Now we were really confused. Who was buying all these peppers? Why could we find dishes made with chiles only in Santiago's Thai, Mexican and Peruvian restaurants?

Puerto Montt

We decided to fly out of the city, to Puerto Montt, south of Santiago. What we didn't realize until we arrived, was that Puerto Montt and the other towns in Chile's Lake District, were settled by German immigrants in the 19th century.

The Germanic influence was obvious in both the architecture and the food. In addition to sausages and weiner schnitzels, we found bakeries and salones de te, filled with decadent kuchens, strudels and Black Forest tortes.

Couple these temptations with the Chilean penchant for sweets, and it's easy to see why afternoon tea or onces, as it's called here, is a veritable institution. (Besides, it helps quench hunger pangs until 8 or 9 p.m., when dinner is usually served.)

Seafood market

To find chiles, we solicited the help of a local guide, Juan Roberto, who brought us to the market at Angelmó. "Sure we use chiles," he says. "We add them to soups to help keep us warm in winter. But it's curanto that is famous here, not chiles."

Curanto at Angelmo Seafood Market near Puerto Montt
Curanto at Angelmo Seafood Market near Puerto Montt
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

He leads us past stalls of fresh fish, smoked mussels, and edible seaweed, to a woman standing in front of a tall aluminum pot, heating on a hot plate. She lifts the lid and a gust of aromatic steam envelopes us. As the cloud clears, we make out a mound of chicken legs, pork sausages, clams, potatoes and boiled potato bread, called chapalele.

Guinness Book of Records

"The dish comes from the nearby island of Chiloe, where I was born," explains Roberto. "Some families still cook it the original way, in underground ovens, heated with hot stones and covered with leaves." The resemblance to the traditional Hawaiian luau is not purely coincidental, we learn. "Many people believe our ancestors were Polynesian," he adds.

Puerto Montt became famous in March 1995, when it made the Guinness Book of Records for the world's largest curanto. "It was baked in a circular underground oven, over 20 yards in diameter," describes Roberto. "We expected 1,000 people for dinner, but 2,000 showed up!"

As for the chiles, they aren't cooked with the curanto, but served on the side, as a pebre sauce, called chancho en piedro, (pig in stone). "We grind green chiles in a mortar, and add lots of garlic, tomatoes and onions," explains Roberto. "We also eat it with asado, which is grilled meat."

Atacama Desert

Our suspicions about the popularity of chiles were confirmed that evening when we visited a supermarket in Puerto Montt. In addition to the hot peppers in the produce section, we found a treasure trove of chile products lining the grocery shelves: plastic bags of dried aji, one-kilo tins of long red aji, preserved in salt and vinegar, bottles of jugo (juice) de aji picante and aji extracto, jars of salsa de pebre and aji Chileno pulpa (pepper paste preserved with vinegar and salt).

If chiles were so prevalent, south of Santiago, wouldn't they be even more popular, in the north, closer to the equator? We boarded a LAN flight north to Calama to investigate.

The barren Atacama Desert here is unbroken, except for such wonders as the Valley of the Moon, vast salt lakes inhabited by flamingoes, snow-capped volcanoes, fields of steaming geysers, and lush oasis villages.

Hot enough to make you swear

During the long, dusty four-wheel drive rides, between sights, we had plenty of time to ask Eric, our guide, about chiles. "Older people here eat more hot peppers than us young ones," he says. "I eat pebre sauce with rice, soup, bread, fish and meat, but my grandfather is always looking for something hotter.

"We have some really hot peppers here that he likes. They're so hot that we call them putas parió, which literally translates as 'the whore gives birth.' In English, you'd probably yell out son-of-a-bitch if you tasted one.

My grandfather eats them chopped up in soup, or raw, with tomato and onion salad. If you want really hot chiles, you're more likely to find them in homes or in country restaurants, rather than in cities."

Hacienda

We follow his advice, on our way back to Santiago, and stop at Hacienda Los Lingues, a working ranch and horse farm in San Fernando, Chile. Guests stay overnight, in one of 30 historical rooms, or come for the day, to dine in a subterranean stone wine cellar. As soon as we saw the dried corn, herbs and chile ristras hanging from the wooden beams on the ceiling, we knew we were in the right place.

Baking empanadas in outdoor oven at Hacienda Los Lingues
Baking empanadas in outdoor oven at Hacienda Los Lingues
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The hacienda has remained with the same family for 400 years. Owners, Maria-Elena Lyon and German Claro-Lira, invited us into their high-ceilinged kitchen. "Here in Chile, we don't cook with chiles," explained Lyon. "We always add chile to taste, afterwards, either as chopped green peppers or pureed red chiles with oil."

As we spoke, Bania and Patricia, the hacienda's two cooks, were busy preparing a popular Chilean dish called porotos granados. "It's a soup, made with fresh lima beans, pumpkin, corn and basil," says Lyon. "We serve it with chopped chiles, on the side. Our guests say its their favorite Chilean dish."

Chilean food

Nearly as popular, are the empanadas, the bread, baked in an outdoor clay oven, and the pastel de choclo, which is always served with humitas. "Humitas are similar to Mexican tamales," says Lyon.

"We make them with large cobs of corn, which are starchier than sweet corn. They're our oldest Chilean dish. The Incas gave humitas to their couriers to eat, along with dried fish. We usually eat humitas with ground red chiles, cooked in oil."

Having sampled the wonderful Chilean country food, we returned to Santiago, resolving to find the one missing piece to the puzzle: where could we find hot and spicy cuisine, outside the ethnic restaurants?

Ana Maria crushes chiles in mortar.
Ana Maria crushes chiles in mortar.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Seafood restaurant

Fortunately, before leaving for Chile, we had mentioned our chile quest to our Abercrombie & Kent guide. When we explained our dilemma, he suggested that we have dinner at Ana Maria's seafood restaurant.

"Don't order from the menu," he advised. "Just ask for recommendations from the waiters and Ana Maria." It was good advice.

Tears in our eyes

Ana Maria, who began her business by serving curanto to customers in her home, knew exactly what we wanted. She invited us into the kitchen and showed us a ristra of green, red and dried peppers.

"I use the green chiles to make pebre sauce," she says. "My parents send me the red cacho de cabra chiles from the south. I either roast them in the wooden stove, or toast them on the grill. When they're dry, I grind them in a mortar. I use the powdered chiles, or merquem, in pil-pil, hot tripe with merquem, and mariscos (shellfish) picante."

We now knew what to order for dinner. While it was being prepared, we sampled some pebre sauce, from a small dish on the table. Tears welled in our eyes and we reached for some tissues. Our quest was complete.


RECIPES

(Reprinted with permission)

Grand Hyatt Santiago's Stir-Fried Beef with Chile Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon garlic, chopped
  • 3/4 pound tender beef, sliced
  • 1/4 cup fried dried chiles, thinly sliced
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1/3 cup spring onion, cut into short lengths
  • 1/3 cup red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/3 cup green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 spring onions, cut into short lengths
  • 1 red chile, sliced
  • 4 to 5 cilantro leaves

Heat oil in wok over medium heat. Fry the garlic. When it has yellowed, add the beef and cook for 3 minutes, turning regularly. Add the chiles, onion, spring onion, peppers, fish sauce, soy sauce, and salt. Cook for 4 minutes.

Garnish with spring onions, chile slices and cilantro leaves.

Yield: 4 servings.

Grand Hyatt Santiago's Pil-Pil (River Crayfish with Garlic Sauce)

  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 red chile pepper, sliced
  • 6 river crayfish, white shrimp or fresh water prawns
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • salt and pepper, to taste

In a skillet, heat the oil. Add the garlic and the chile pepper. Sauté the crayfish, shrimp, or prawns, in the pan, for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the wine and reduce the sauce, by about half. Add the butter to make a smooth sauce. Season to taste.

Yield: one serving.

Grand Hyatt Santiago's Baked Empanadas

Crust:
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 whole egg, beaten well
  • 1/2 cup warm milk
  • 1 cup shortening, melted

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the beaten egg and yolk, the milk, and the melted shortening. Mix to make a stiff dough. Divide into 20 pieces. Roll each thinly into a circle. Put a spoonful of the filling on half of the circle and fold over. Wet the edge with milk, fold over again to make a border. Bake in a hot oven, at 400 degrees, until brown. Serve with pebre sauce.

Filling:
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 4 onions, finely sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon chile powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
  • 20 black olives
  • 40 large raisins

Heat the oil with the paprika. Fry the onions until soft. Add the cumin, oregano, chile powder and salt. Add the ground meat and mix with the onions. Cook until no longer pink, but don't let the meat get too brown. Leave until the next day so that the juice sets. Fill the empanadas and divide the egg slices, the olives and raisins among the 20 empanadas. Fold over the dough as described above.

If you like them shiny, paint with a glaze made of 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons of milk before putting them in the oven.

Yield: 20.

Ana Maria's Pebre Sauce

  • 1 whole garlic, cloves peeled
  • 6 green chile peppers, chopped
  • 1 small bunch cilantro
  • 4 tomatoes, peeled
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 pinch cumin
  • salt, to taste

Grind the garlic and the chiles in a mortar. Chop the cilantro and tomatoes finely. Add to the garlic and chile paste. Mix in the oil, cumin and salt.

Grand Hyatt Santiago's Pastel de Choclo (Corn and Meat Pie)

Topping:
  • 6 large ears of corn, kernels grated
  • 8 leaves fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup milk
Filling:
  • 4 large onions, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons oil
  • 1 pound lean beef, finely ground
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
  • 1 cup black olives
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 12 pieces chicken, de-boned, browned in hot oil,
    seasoned with salt, pepper and cumin
  • 2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar

Heat the grated corn, chopped basil, salt and butter in a large pot. Add the milk, little by little, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Set aside, while you prepare the meat filling. Fry the onions in oil until transparent. Add the ground meat and stir till brown. Season with cumin, salt and pepper.

To prepare the pie, use an oven-proof dish that you can take to the table. Spread the onion-ground meat mixture over the bottom of the dish. Arrange the hard-boiled egg slices, olives, raisins and chicken on top. Cover the filling with the corn mixture. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and bake in a 400 degree oven, for 30 to 35 minutes, until the topping is golden brown. Serve at once, with humitas.

Yield: 12 servings.

Hacienda Los Lingues Humitas

  • 1 dozen, very large ears of corn
  • 6 onions, chopped
  • 1/2 pound lard
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 large bunch fresh basil

Grind corn kernels in meat grinder. Mix with any milk squeezed out during the grinding. Set aside. Fry onions in lard, with paprika. Add finely chopped basil. Mix well with corn.

Overlap two large corn husks, or four small husks, sewn together. Top with 1/12 of the filling. Fold long sides over first, then short sides. Tie with string to make each humita. Repeat 11 times.

Boil a large pot of water. Add humitas. When water starts to boil again, cook for 20 minutes. Serve with pastel de choclo and pebre sauce.

Yield: 12.

Hacienda Los Lingues Parotos Granados (Bean Soup)

  • 6 cups fresh lima beans
  • 3 cups corn kernels
  • 3 cups pumpkin, chopped in 3/4-inch cubes
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 bunch fresh basil, chopped
  • salt and pepper, to taste.

Put beans in pot and cover with water. Simmer until tender. Add corn and pumpkin. Boil until vegetables are tender. Set aside.

Fry onion in oil with paprika. Add to cooked vegetables and broth, along with basil leaves. Simmer until hot. Season to taste, with salt and pepper. Serve with pebre sauce, on the side.

Yield: 12 servings.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Chile Tourist Board: www.chile.travel

More things to see and do in Chile:

Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa - Chilean Patagonia

Cruises of Chile's Inside Passage

Puerto Natales - Giant Milodon Cave

Torres del Paine - Hiking from Explora Patagonia

Punta Arenas Chile - City at the End of the World