11 Tips about Chilean Food
Being such a long country (4,270 km or 2,647 miles of coastline) stretched over a variety of landscapes (from deserts to glaciers), Chile has a vast range of food.
Yet, every now and then you will hear a foreigner say that Chilean food is boring.
Well, I’d like to say that whoever says Chilean food is bland or boring isn’t eating in the right places! OK, so it isn’t spicy, and doesn’t often have those interesting concoctions that explode the taste buds in your mouth but still, I quite like Chilean food.
What you will find is that you need to try some traditional meals outside of the typical restaurants dotting Santiago and the touristy places (which are only ho-hum). Have you ever tried a real curanto that has just come out of the ground in Chiloé? It’s nothing like the one they make in a pot. The wet earthen smells and smoky taste are great!
There are of course some eating habits that take some getting used to but it is all a part of the idiosyncrasies of Chile and what makes it so different and interesting.
1. Would you like some salt on your salt?
What amazes me is that Chileans automatically put salt on their food before they have even tried it! What’s with that? Are they already assuming that it’s tasteless? The thing is, when you watch them cook, they shake the life out of the salt shaker so there’s plenty of it already in the food.
The first salad I had in Chile took me by surprise. My eyes watered, my jaw dropped and I cringed, all because they had put lemon on my salad. It was like the lettuce had bitten back. We don’t put lemon juice on our salads in NZ, if anything we put a dressing on it which is more to the sweet side than acidic. I actually don’t mind it now but when you aren’t expecting it, it can be a shock to the system.
Chile, with its long coastline, is proud of the large variety of seafood it has available. Problem is that his is true mostly outside of Santiago. (What do you expect, it’s not a coastal city). To try the best seafood you will need to go to the local fish markets down at the wharves of coastal towns for the freshest and most interesting variety. Remember that it should always be cooked unless you don’t mind being hospitalized for intoxication.
4. Fruit and Vegetables
You will find that the best fruit and vegetables get exported and we are left with the dregs at the supermarket. I still cringe at the bruised and blemished fruit on display that make it look like it is already half-rotten. Probably the best place to buy your fruit and vegies is not at the supermarket but at the local Ferias or temporary markets that line a street for the day in different neighbourhoods. The produce on display is usually quite good and much cheaper than the supermarket. Now that I think about it, we should start a list of where and when these markets are. Anyone know of any of these Ferias near them?
Another alternative in Santiago is the famous La Vega which is across the river from the Mercado Central (Central Market) at the Cal y Canto Metro Station. Prices are good, as is the variety. I used to go there all the time when I lived downtown.
You must remember to wash AND peel all fruit and vegetables. If the locals do it, you had better too. Also make sure you check the lettuce for any creepy crawlies.
What Chileans normally have are Hallullas (disc-shaped bread) or Marraquetas (a roll that’s fluffy inside) that are baked that same day. I find the loaves of sliced bread drier and sometimes a little stale (yes, I do check the dates) since they aren’t a normal part of the Chilean diet and sit on the shelf for a longer period of time.
No, it’s not a jar filled with diced up men. Manjar is a sweet brown spread that is used in almost every dessert or pastry that you will find in Chile. It’s nice at first though can become sickly after the first kilo or so. You are guaranteed to come across this while you are here.
7. Street Food
My iron-clad stomach allows me to eat off the street though I wouldn’t recommend it to foreigners that are new to Chile unless they want to pass a couple of days hugging a toilet bowl.
A typical food found on the streets are Sopaipillas. A Sopaipilla is a flat circular fried bread made from pumpkin and flour and are best when smothered in Pebre or mustard. The sopaipillas stands are great in winter. You can find many of them on corners down in the center of the city and again the locals themselves say I shouldn’t eat at them since they are a health risk. Fortunately I have never had a problem and actually look forward to them after work.
8. Curry is not hot
It’s hard to find a decent curry here, even at ‘Indian’ restaurants since they are normally run by Chileans. Curry here is very mild, sometimes bordering on the sweet side at times. If you like hot burn-you-mouth-and-your-butt curries, you may have to bring your own jar of it.
9. Fast Food
Like the rest of the unhealthy world, Chileans love their fast food. You can easily get your doses of MierDonalds (a play on words for those that know Spanish), Pizza Hut, KFC etc as well as your Starbucks for your caffeine cravings. But why travel thousands of miles to eat something you can get back home? Chile has their own fast food places such as Fritz (German burgers), Pagoda (Chinese food) and Lomitón (more burgers and hotdogs). Notice that there are none that serve local dishes. Your best bet for that type of food are the ‘Healthy’ fast food buffets where you pick and mix.
10. Vegetarian Food
Vegetarians go hungry. If you ask for a vegetarian meal you will 9 times out of 10 be given some lettuce with some slices of tomato on the side (and maybe a quarter of a lemon). How original! Little by little there is a growing awareness that vegetarian dishes don’t have to be boring but it is not as wide spread as in other countries. The only decent vegetarian café that immediately comes to mind (in this city of 6 million people) is El Huerto which is at Orrego Luco 54, Providencia, Santiago (Metro Pedro de Valdivia) www.elhuerto.cl. Since Vegetarian food is not my forté, do you know of any other good vegetarian cafés, hangouts or tips in general?
11. My favourite dish
Since I am a carnivore, my favourite dish is Bife a lo Pobre or ‘Poor Beef’. It is anything but poor and if you are seriously hungry, it is guaranteed to fill you up. It contains steak smothered in caramelized onions, French fries and a couple of fried eggs on top. Not the best for your cholesterol but oh so yummy! The ones they make at Eladio restaurant (in Providencia) are divine.
And on the subject of restaurants if one of them doesn’t serve pebre, (a seasoning of tomatoes with chopped onion, chili, coriander, and chives that you smother over the bread they give you while you wait) then I don’t usually go back there. I love the stuff.
For a complete list of Chilean Food with its name in Spanish and what it is in English, check out: Typical Chilean Food.
What’s your favourite Chilean dish?
Do you have any more tips to share?