Cocina Chilena, cerca de mi corazón, y ahora cerca de mi estómago (Chilean cuisine, close to my heart, and now close to my tummy). You may have read before that my boyfriend Rodrigo is Chilean, and my introduction to Chilean food through his influence sparked a passionate love affair with South American cuisine. At the beginning of Chilean week I submitted my PhD thesis on the subject of developmental neuroscience, after 4 years of endless experiments and minimum wages, so I gave myself a week off work and wanted to celebrate by cooking the whole time (wait, hang on…). Rodrigo’s parents were also visiting us in Australia for the first time, so I was keen to make Chilean food for the ultimate of judges. I’ve visited Chile twice now, and one of the most striking things about the country is its landscapes. Being so long and thin, it spans many latitudes, from one of the driest deserts in the world, all the way down through volcanos, forests and lakes, to glaciers neighbouring Antarctica. One of the most consistent elements throughout the country is the Andes mountain range, omnipresent to the east, looming over every moment of life. This sort of scale and proximity of mountain is completely surreal to someone who grew up in Australia, where the tallest of “mountains” resemble cute termite mounds in comparison. All of this makes the scenery, as well as the crops and cuisines, incredibly diverse as you travel through different landscapes. One of the things I love about Chile is the amazing seafood. The coast of Chile has very deep, cold water coming up the side of the continent from Antarctica, so the seafood is quite different to anything we get in the shallow, warm waters of Australia. The shellfish is larger and denser, and sometimes has a faint-to-strong taste of iodine (depending on the species). I couldn’t cook a lot of these delicious seafood dishes because it’s impossible to find those varieties of seafood here. I’ll just have to go back to Chile again sometime, oh well! Despite its confusing name, Chile actually doesn’t use chilli peppers much at all in its cooking, and instead uses traditional Mediterranean flavours of onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, pepper, as well as liberal quantities of salt. It is a country where people like to enjoy the pleasures life has to offer, and food is certainly one of those pleasures.
Pulmay, milcao and Chilean salads
Pulmay is a mix of vegetables (capsicum, onion, garlic, potato), meat (pork, chorizo, chicken) and seafood (mussels, prawns) layered between cabbage leaves in a large pot, then covered and slow-cooked in lots of broth and white wine. The solid bits are then layered out on a platter, and the broth is served separately as a soup. The soup especially is delicious in ways that I would not have predicted. Out of all the dishes I’ve prepared, this is the one Rodrigo remembers most fondly and requests encores of, which should give you an idea of its quality. The original idea of this preparation is from a dish termed Curanto, from an island in the far south of Chile called Chiloé. Curanto involves the same process as described above, but is instead cooked in an earth-oven for many hours, and pulmay is therefore also sometimes called “curanto en olla” (curanto in a pot). Also commonly served in the south and on Chiloé are milcao, which are fried or baked patties of cooked mashed and raw grated potato, stuffed with various fillings such as chicharrones, onion or cheese. Traditional chilean salads that I included are liberally salted tomato and buffered onion, and an avocado, celery and palm-hearts salad. I have never been to Chiloé, but I’ve been reliably informed that it’s a very magical place, shrouded in legends and superstition. One such superstition is that curanto (and therefore pulmay) makes you sleep. There’s even a song that Rodrigo’s parents kindly sang to me about a woman who harasses her husband to get out of bed and go fishing because it’s getting late in the day. He replies that he can’t because he’s too hungry, and that he needs to eat curanto so that he can have the strength to go, otherwise he might die from hunger while he’s fishing. Eventually his poor wife gives in and makes him curanto, after which he is so extremely sleepy that he can’t go fishing after all. I laughed at this song, smiling at the sweet legends and sayings that I love so dearly about South America. Then I ate the pulmay and slept for two days. I’m not joking, I haven’t slept so much in years. Admittedly I had just submitted my PhD thesis, so that may have been a contributing factor, but I will certainly not take the legends of Chiloé lightly again…
Pastel de choclo with pebre and sopaipillas
Have you ever thought about what your last meal would be if you were about to be executed on death row (for a crime you were completely innocent of, of course)? I have, and although I oscillate between many different things, pastel de choclo usually features prominently on my list. I’ve made it many times before, and cherish every opportunity to try it when I’m in Chile. It is made with a “pino” which is fried beef mince, liberally spiced with garlic, cumin, paprika, raisins, black olives, and lots and lots of onion. Slices of hard-boiled egg and shredded chicken breast are then added on top (although I believe whole chicken legs are more traditional). Then a thick paste is poured over the top, made with a boiled mixture of ground fresh corn kernels, butter, milk and basil. Some will say that the only proper way to prepare it is by grinding the corn kernels by hand, and that it’s an act of sin to use a food processor, but I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life. The whole thing is then sprinkled with sugar on top so that it browns, then placed in the oven to cook through. My pastel de choclo here is always more watery that the ones I have found in Chile, which I am led to believe may be due to the type of corn (they use a larger, starchier variety there called pastelero), as well as the use of a more porous, absorbent clay pot in Chile. Who knows, maybe the food processor shame does have substance after all? Nevertheless, it’s delicious, and if you have never tried this, you should make it for someone you love. Pebre is also a momentous foodstuff for me, because its introduction into my life marked my conversion from a coriander-hater to a coriander-lover. I used to confidently declare that I was just “one of those people” who was genetically averse to it. Maybe this was never the case? Maybe it’s possible to learn to get over a genetic aversion? Maybe all those late night experiments in the lab have accidentally mutated my coriander genes? Whatever the reason, I now love coriander, and I especially love pebre, which is a salsa of tomato, buffered onion, lemon juice, olive oil and fresh coriander. It’s served often with BBQs, breads, pastel de choclo and sopaipillas. Sopaipillas are a quick fried pastry, made from butter, wheat flour, and, in this case, pumpkin. They are eaten either plain, or with sweet or savoury toppings, and can be recognised by the fork holes poked through them to prevent them puffing up too much during cooking. Sopaipillas are customarily cooked when it’s raining, which I think is a lovely custom, as they taste like the very essence of coziness. I had already planned to cook them on a specific day, and it happened to also rain that day, which brought a little bit of magical realism into my week.
Cazuela, humitas and marraqueta
Cazuela just means “cooking pot” in Spanish, so you can imagine that the ingredients of a cazuela are fairly diverse and regional. It usually contains very large pieces of vegetable such as carrot, pumpkin, potato, onion, celery, green beans and corn, as well as large chunks of meat in a meaty broth, well spiced with oregano, cumin, salt and pepper. I cooked my cazuela with beef, which gave a nice rich flavour to the broth and vegetables. Humitas are made by mixing ground fresh corn, onion, basil and butter or lard, then wrapping the mixture in corn husks and boiling or steaming then. The corn, and therefore the corn husks, in South America are purportedly much, much larger than here, so I could only make tiny little humitas with my inferior Australian corn, which Rodrigo kindly pronounced “cute”. Humitas are unwrapped after cooking and eaten with table sugar and tomato salsa, which is a pretty addictive combination. I also made marraqueta from scratch, which is a type of bread. I didn’t really understand the issues international people had with Australian bread before. “What’s wrong with it?” I would ask “Sure, Wonderwhite is a bit plasticky, but Helgas is pretty decent?”. The truth is, we don’t actually have good bread readily for sale here, and they were all right to say so. In Chile they have incredible varieties of bread, immediately fresh from the oven, in the lowliest of supermarkets and corner stores. I always thought of bread here as a vehicle for sandwich fillings – an edible casing and convenient hand-protector. Only late in my life have I realised that bread is a food in and of itself, and good bread is one of the best sensations on earth. Of these revelatory breads, marraqueta is the emperor. It was apparently invented by French immigrant brothers named “Marraquette” in the port city of Valparaíso. It’s made from flour, salt and yeast, and is cooked in a humid oven until it’s crisp on the outside and incredibly fluffy and soft on the inside. The shape I have made is compulsory for a marraqueta, and no Chilean seems to be clear on what one unit or one serving size actually is (a quarter of the four interconnected buns in the picture? half? all four?). I have a sneaking suspicion that this confusion is intentional, and is left vague so that one might have the opportunity to eat more marraqueta than a description might suggest, but I can’t really hold this against them. I was surprised at how successful and relatively easy my marraqueta was, although my arms were a little tired from all the kneading.
Porotos granados, ensalada Chilena and empanadas de pino
Porotos granados is a traditional vegan dish that draws from indigenous ingredients and recipes. The original inhabitants of Chile were the Mapuche people, who used many native ingredients in their cooking, such as corn, white beans and pumpkin. These three components make up the basis of this dish, where you stew the beans and pumpkin together with onion, garlic and spices such as paprika, marjoram, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and merquén, which is an indigenous spice mix made from smoked chilli pepper. Fresh corn kernels and basil are added near the end, and I left some whole and blended the rest to add a thick, starchy element to the dish. I finished mine by adding green beans, which I gather is not strictly traditional, but I saw it in one recipe, and I felt like the dish needed a bit of green. Ensalada Chilena literally means “Chilean salad”, but it actually refers to a very specific dish containing large moon-shaped slices of buffered onion and tomato, dressed with olive oil, coriander, and plenty of salt. Empanadas are the meat/savoury-filled pastry pervasive throughout South America, but there is actually quite a bit of diversity between regions. The Chilean variety is usually “de horno” (“of the oven”), meaning that it is baked, rather than deep fried. I prefer the taste and texture of the baked dough, and how it forms a firm, yet still chewy crust, that protects the filling inside. Baking the empanada also usually means you can make them bigger, just for your information… The Chilean fillings are more diverse, some of my favourites being seafood varieties such as de marisco (mixed seafood), and fine seafoods with cheese, such as prawn, scallop and crab. The most traditional filling, however, is “de pino”. Pino, as I mentioned previously, is spiced beef mince and onion. One thing Chileans really understand well, is that when you put meat inside pastry, the spices get diluted, and if you’re not careful you end up with a bland combination. They therefore slightly over-spice their fillings to ensure everything ends up perfect in combination. Don’t be afraid to go heavy on the spices if you’re ever making meat-filled pastry, you won’t regret it in the end. The empanadas de pino also include black olives, raisins and a slice or two of hard boiled egg inside, and they should be juicy, but not to the point where it’s difficult to eat them on the go. Whenever I go to Chile, one of the first things I look for is a good empanada. When we were driving on long journeys through Chile, we would see hand-written signs advertising homemade empanadas for sale on the side of the road. This knowledge has ruined all other road trips for me, and I frequently start hallucinating empanada signs when I’m deliriously hungry on deserted Australian highways.