What is Chilean Cuisine, Really?

by Liz Caskey on October 6, 2010

I know, I know. Mala mía. Chile’s Bicentennial celebration came and went–and I didn’t say a darn thing about it on this blog–until now. Really my 18 holiday was wedged between two fun but exhausting weeklong trips for work in the Chilean wine country and Mendoza, Argentina. And after really contemplating on a larger level the Bicentennial, I think that the vibe is more about the meaning of being Chilean. Where Chile’s headed as a nation, people, culture. How Chile is inserting itself into the larger world. In this vein, I would like to share my column from the Bicentennial edition of Placeres Magazine where I write a monthly column (this publication, is akin to a local Food & Wine in Chile). I invite you guys to share your thoughts too in the comments section. Viva Chile!

What is Chilean cuisine anyways?

As of late, this seems to be the million dollar question. A constant debate between different generations of Chilean chefs, foodies, and wine lovers, that for my taste, has not yet provided an adequate response. This is an ongoing question that I continously contextualize for our foreign guests that come to Chile to travel its gorgeous wine valleys in search of connecting with the gastronomic soul of this place. Yes, this country does have a unique cuisine. And our travelers leave completely fascinated, enamored, and inspired by it. And we don’t take people to all the trendy, chichi restaurants. We choose to show them simple restaurants that are authentic, where they can get a true sensation of the dishes and the elemental nature of Chile’s cuisine. Would you go to Italy and eat molecular cuisine in Tuscany? The same rules apply here.

I want you to close your eyes for a moment. If you’re Chilean, or familiar with the food, try to remember these dishes when they are well done–texture, taste, perfect balance. Do this exercise as if you’d never tasted them before. Imagine a palta reina, a perfectly ripe, creamy avocado, halved and filled with an herbed shrimp salad made with tiny gambas. Next, plateada con puré picante, a slowly-braised beef brisket (marinated usually 2 days in red wine and aromatics) with chili-laced REAL mashed potatoes. How about the ubiqutous sandwiches like the lomito topped with avocado or chacarero, seared steak with green beans, chili, and tomato? Or how about homey foods like charquicán, a creamy, warm-your-soul vegetable potage with pumpkin, potatoes, and finely chopped beef and pollo arvejado, chicken with peas? Winter time favorites like restoring soups such as ajiaco made with leftover roast beef, potatoes, herbs, and egg-drop in a rich broth; chicken cazuela; sopaipillas pasadas, fried pumpkin bread drowned in an earthy molasses tinged with orange zest, cinnamon, and cloves. For seafood lovers, so simple but so delicious, Chilean locos, abalones abundant on the Central coast, with homemade mayo and a touch of lemon; mariscal a sort of shellfish bouillabaise; machas a la parmesana, tender, pink razor clams flash-baked in the oven with Parmesan. And for the dulceros, those with a sweet tooth, classic cakes like the layered mil hojas, paper-thin puff pastry (homemade, of course) “glued” together by manjar, milk caramel (Chile’s version of dulce de leche sans the vanilla extract). Or their milky, rustic flan, leche asada, with just the right sweetness and made in big pans; or the summer time treat, mote con huesillo, sundried peaches rehydrated in water with a touch of sugar and chilled–the juice and peach served ice cold in tall glasses with pearl barley. There are so many.

Dishes Forging a National Identity

To understand and define what Chilean cuisine is, it must be seen as it is in conjunction with the local culture. The local culture gives it meaning and ultimately consumes it. Culture and gastronomy do not function in separate vacuums, nor is one separated from the other. They go together hand-in-hand. One feeds and gives life to the other. Truly for me it is an error (committed frequently in Chile with culinary professionals and chefs) to compare Chilean cuisine with those cuisines hailing from Argentina, Peru, Mexico, France, or even China. Or the other extreme, and tendency supported by government export organizations, is to reduce and profile Chile simply as a producer offering a gamut of (gourmet) products from olive oil to mountain papayas and salmon–with no further glimpse into the local culture or food.

Seriously, what are they looking for in drawing these comparisons? It seems, for me at least, that they’re looking for (perhaps unconsciously), to justify to themselves that Chile does not have the same “level”, sophistication, nor recognition of its cuisine on a worldwide scale. But, wait! wait!, at the same time, Chile does have these amazing, indigenous products born from this pristine nature that everybody should be consuming everywhere NOW. What kind of impression does that give to the world, and how can a national gastronomic identity be forged, and spread to the world, with that kind of a mixed message? And there you have it my friends, this is the central problem. It all boils down to an issue of national identity.

“Unico” in the World

First and foremost, Chile does not have the same history, immigration, culture, people, or climate as other countries do. So obviously, the foods and culinary traditions that are born here are not going to be the same as in other places. This is an advantage, not a difficulty as it often seems to be pitched. Chile is very privileged in that it has one of the richest and most diverse geographies on Planet Earth from tropical zones in the north, the Andean altiplano, down to Patagonia, a 2,500-mile long Pacific coast with a (fertile!) ocean with dozens of fish and native shellfish, and it is one of the few Mediterranean zones in the world. Yes, food here is still harvested in its peak ripeness with flavor and aroma. However, the products harvested from these abundant areas are not prepared nor consumed in a refrigerated container. No, no, no. Somebody grows them. Somebody takes them and transforms them into dishes and recipes. These products are the base for the dishes that are the unique culinary terroir and expression of this corner of earth. Unique. Just like grapes that are transformed into wine, no two are ever the same. In that lies its implicit beauty. What’s authentic and true. I propose that we start applying the term of terruño, or terroir, to Chilean cuisine, the same as we are starting to do with wine appellations in Chile. By doing these, we are going to better appreciate, and understand, the regionality of Chile’s cuisine, people, and traditions.

An Honest, Elemental Cuisine

Honestly, I think part of this tension and constant comparison comes from Chileans not fully appreciating what’s theirs. This is a complex subject I will not dive into in this essay but let’s just say it ties into the “island” (isolation) aspect of this country’s mentality and culture caused by the geography. It has created this tendency to look afar for examples and seek approval from other more “developed” countries like Europe or the US. So what does this cause? Chile, gastronomically speaking, doesn’t feel totally comfortable in their own skin (yet) and figuratively speaking, they don’t like what they see in the mirror. They feel they should be like France or Peru–and seeing they are obviously not–perceive this is always a disadvantage. Thus, not liking what they see, they judge themselves and put themselves down, casting Chilean cuisine aside as merely “rustic, humble, not sophisticated and even no good”.

Whoa mamita. Why is this was something bad?! Wait a minute, WHO says this is bad? Is there an unseen culinary god somewhere we don’t know about? Being rustic, elemental, ingredient-driven does not necessarily make it bad. It is what it is. That’s its true nature. Let’s look briefly at Italian cuisine. This is also a cucina povere based on simple preparations, driven by seasonal, incredibly fresh ingredients where the focus is on respecting textures, flavors, and its inherent simplicity. Chilean cuisine has exactly this same essence, if they are willing to recognize and accept this.

Given that I grew up in the 80s in the US where processed food was rampant, Chile for me is a paradise of fresh, healthy products. The cooks transform them in blissfully simple dishes. Honest. Made at home with lots of love. Chilean cuisine is elemental. Fundamental. You don’t need a kazillion spices or sauces to cover the flavors because the ingredients in their natural state are already a-m-a-z-i-n-g, bursting full of life, flavor, texture, expression. Simplicity is the hallmark, and glory, behind Chilean cuisine. All that people (yes, you local chefs included) have to do is open their eyes to see it, recognize it, appreciate it.

A Legacy of Home Cooks

And so, you may ask, in this debate, who are my references? My great teachers, maestros, of Chilean cuisine have been home cooks–from joints like Carmen’s in La Vega, grandmothers, aunts, my maid, my mother-in-law, the grillmasters, my caseros, vegetable vendors and fish mongers. Chilean cuisine is a slow cuisine made by home cooks. These people are the guardians of the gastronomic culture here. They keep it alive, relevant, consumed by families and the masses too at a popular level. They are the ones who patiently prepare these timeless dishes every single day with passion and love. They take the time to teach the next generation these recipes. If this gastronomic tradition is lost, or “exchanged”, for a “newer” Chilean cuisine based only on ingredients, the local culture dies along with it.

Behind each dish there’s a person, an energy/spirit, a geography, and a tradition. It’s not just about consuming a rollizo, a lovely rockfish caught on the central coast by artisan fisherman. It’s about that fisherman who went out on the rocks and contemplated catching it. Then, he came home and gave his prize catch to his señora, the home cook who also mans the picada, joint, on the beach. She examined the fish, scales gleaming with glassy eyes and red lungs, and thought to herself, “this is so fresh, it needs to be prepared with lemon, just like my grandmother made ceviche”. So she headed out to the lemon tree in their garden and plucked perfectly oval, juicy lemons off the tree and pulled a bunch of cilantro and green onions out of the black soil in her herb garden. Her simple act of preparing this traditional dish is the energy behind continually feeding and giving life to Chile’s collective gastronomic culture.

In my humble opinion, for Chilean cuisine to truly spread its dishes and essence across the world, it must, PLEASE, reveal itself as it is. Just be itself. To all the chefs and cooks, let’s perfect that cazuela with the right proportion of pumpkin chunks, potatoes, green beans, and toothy rice all made with free range chicken and its stock. The dishes here are truly like Chile’s fine wines–when they are well made–fresh, long, elegant, balanced, and complex in flavor. You feel and taste the noble origin of the few ingredients that harmonize in that recipe, and in that moment, the dish speaks by itself. It does not need anything else. It’s the pure expression of its true, authentic self.

Let me say it one more time, in the ingredients and this simple nature is the glory of Chilean cuisine. Hallelujah.

{ 1 comment }

Harold Partain October 13, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Liz, thank you for so beautifully stating what one would assume is natural. Local pride and authenticity is the real attraction in traveling to experience another culture’s cuisine. Cuisine that reflects the culture, or as we often state, “cuisine is the tactile connection to breathing history. Culture and history we can taste.”

I am more eager than ever to come to Chile and have this unique and memorable experience. Dreaming of the freshness and flavor is no longer enough. I can enjoy the excellent Chilean wines here at home but to enjoy them along with the natural foods of Chile is a dream worthy of first-hand experience! Again, thanks for a beautifully writen article direct from your heart (and experienced stomach!)

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