Chumbeque – A Tradition from Iquique

Chumbeques from Iquique, Chile

Someone from our office knew that I was going to Iquique for work and immediately asked me to bring some Chumbeques back.

“What the hell are they?” I thought.
Sounded like some small furry animal that you keep as a pet… and then eat.
Well, I wasn’t too far off. You do eat them but they aren’t pets.

After a little investigating I discovered that it was a traditional sweet of Iquique which has been around since 1920 and it is as much a part of the city as the beach is.

So when I got a bit of free time, I set off on a long journey to discover the shop where they first starting making them almost a century ago.

Ok, it was only a couple of blocks away from where I was staying downtown, but it is still an “adventure” to get them, trying not to be distracted by the nearby strip clubs that you can hear pump out the same throbbing music every night. It was just a coincidence I was staying in that area, honestly. But I digress…

The Chumbeque Store in Iquique where they are made.

The Chumbeque Store in Iquique where they are made.

But what is it?
Chumbeque is a sweet that has three layers of a type of biscuit originally filled with Limón de Pica (a type of small lemon from Pica) spread and some other secret ingredients.

So what’s the story behind it?
Amongst the first wave of Chinese immigrants that came to Iquique due to the Salitre (Saltpeter = Sodium Nitrate) boom at the beginning of the 20th Century was Mr Koupolin Koo Kau, a doctor of natural Chinese medicine that attended people in the small mining towns.

However after the end of the First World War (1918), the Saltpeter (Salitre) industry declined dramatically (because it contains the minerals or whatever to blow up stuff – when a war finishes, there isn’t much stuff you are allowed to blow up), so a great migration of people went to look for work in the center of Chile (that’s where the capital is).

Mr Koo stayed though had to find alternative options to make a living. In his search he arrived at Pica y Matilla where he fell in love with Petronila Bustillos Sandoval, a well known sweet maker in the zone. (It must be true that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach – with food that is, not sharp objects)

After observing the way she made the classic Alfajores of Pica y Mantilla, he remembered a fellow countryman (Chung) that produced sweets made from beans and incorporated what he remembered from that process into a new sweet.

What to call it?
Mr Koo, with his precarious Spanish referred to it has “Chung-Queque” (el queque de Chung). Eventually the locals “spanishified” the word calling it Chumbeque.
And that is how Chumbeque, the traditional sweet of Iquique was born.

Random Facts about Chumbeques?
What makes it different from other sweets is that the chumbeque can last for months and still maintain its freshness and flavour. So stock up on them in case of major earthquake or for end-of-the-world scenarios.

The chumbeque is highly nutritious and contains 450 calories per unit, making it ideal for active people (looking at you sportspeople and hyperactive students) though if you are worried about putting on weight, there is also a Chumbeque “Light” version containing less calories.

There have been offers by big companies to become partners and sell chumbeques nationwide but the stumbling point has always been the reluctance to change the name (M-Koo) and the saying “The traditional sweet of Iquique”.

Where can you buy Chumbeques?
You can still buy them at the original shop where they were first made almost a century ago:
Ramirez 795, downtown Iquique
(that’s the store in the photo above)

If you are not in Iquique, you may find it in some supermarkets in the 2nd Region and a few places in Santiago (one of the shops in Metro Los Leones – anyone know where else?).

Types of Chumbeque
The first new flavour (outside of the traditional one) was created in 1993 after a suggestion made by a client which involved Mango honey (how yummy does that sound… a big YUM!). It went down well with other clients so more flavours were gradually added.

Currently you can find the following:
Limón de Pica (Pica Lemon) also known as the Traditional Chumbeque.
Naranja (Orange)
Guayaba (Guava)
Maracuyá (Passionfruit)
Manjar (typical brown Chilean spread made from boiled milk and sugar)

Their official site (in Spanish): (warning, there is music)

Have you tried a Chumbeque?
Or how about… had you ever heard of them?

Tags: , , ,

19 Responses to “Chumbeque – A Tradition from Iquique”

  1. Andrea March 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    Very interesting – and so many flavours! I love learning about food items like this that you can only get in certain places and that have such a unique history. Not sure if we will get to Iquique but if we do will be sure to look for them.

    • woodward March 8, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

      I love discovering new food on my journeys too. The only problem is when you love them and you get cravings for them once you get home.

  2. Kyle March 8, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    I enjoy learning about traditions outside of Santiago. So far my favorite is the Chamame dance in Coyhaique. I’m not much of a sweets person so I’d probably hate the chumbuques.

    • woodward March 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

      Chamame Dance … that’s a new one for me. Will check it out.
      Me, I have a major sweet tooth though must admit too much Manjar can get sickly.
      Now that I mentioned it, I didn’t notice a Manjar Chumbeque. Strange!

    • Montserrat December 22, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

      Kyle…Thechumbeque flavor is very unique, it is not neccesarily ‘sweet’ more like a pastry, or like a cookie with lots of butter. 😀

  3. Abby March 8, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    Interesting! I would love to try one, although not manjar flavored. Sounds like a sugar high waiting to happen! I thought that the salitre mines went downhill after people discovered how to make synthetic fertilizer…but maybe it had something to do with weapons too…time to google!

    • woodward March 8, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

      It doesn’t taste sugary at all though will probably give you the same “high”. I remember reading somewhere too about the synthetic fertilizer too. Might have happened around the same time and a final nail in the coffin.

  4. Diana April 5, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    I love the traditional chumbeque, it’s a must when someone goes to Iquique! I’ve been in Chile for the last 2 years and for me it’s the best chilean sweet :)

    • Rob W. April 6, 2011 at 7:20 am #

      My suspicions are confirmed… If you ever mention that you are going to Iquique, there will always be someone in the room that will ask you to bring back chumbeque. :)
      However I completely understand why. They ARE addictive.

  5. Eileen April 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    I have tried a chumbeque. In about 2005 they were around downtown Santiago in some of the kiosks, and actually I think I’ve seen them recently. The whole “they keep forever” thing to me is another way of saying “they never seem particularly fresh.” It does seem like they’d be good for camping and such though.

    • Rob W. April 20, 2011 at 7:59 am #

      The ones you saw recently are probably the same ones from 2005 because nobody has bought them :)
      I wonder if they ever do have a fresh flavour. I couple of months later I still have some and they taste the same.
      Camping use is a good idea for them.

  6. Miljenko Marinkovic July 4, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    They are the best! Delicious. Hard to describe them. Let me know whe you are going to Iquique (t
    Tierra de Campeones) and I’ll send you money so you can buy a few for me.


    • Rob W. July 4, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

      I think you’ll probably be up in Iquique before I will again so I’d need to pass you the money. :)

  7. james August 4, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    you can find them in santiago at most Unimarcs and sometimes in Santa Isabel, though not so much anymore as Jumbo has bought many Sta. Isabel’s. The Unimarc i can always count on them at is on Calle Portugal, in Santiago Centro

    • Rob W. August 4, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

      Thanks for that James. There aren’t any at the Unimarc at Escuela Militar (though it is a smallish one). I might give that Unimarc across from the U Católica a try.

  8. Rob W. December 7, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

    I saw some Chumbeques on sale in a stand yesterday at Sub Centro (Escuela Militar). The sell them at $400 pesos each square. Not sure if they sell the larger blocks.

  9. Exxxperto April 4, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    I have to say it!!! The Chumbeque is Peruvian and not Chilean. The real and original Chumbeque came from Piura area (northern city from Peru). The chumbeque name come from the Mochican culture and not from any Chinese mispronunciation.

  10. Lucho May 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    No matter who made the chumbeque, the best are the ones from M. Koo in Iquique. Love them, took back a block of 36 last time I visited. And yes, they do last forever…

  11. Montserrat December 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Hi all.! I must say Im proudly ‘Iquiqueña’ (female born, raised and living @Iquique) If you are around Chile..I would love to send you some chumbeques.. just ask.! send me the money and you’ll have mail. :)

Leave a Reply