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 ensalada Chilena
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. Ensalada chilena 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 ensalada Chilena (or its closely related cousin: pebre), which is a salsa of tomato, buffered onion, lemon juice, olive oil and fresh coriander. It’s served often with BBQs, breads and pastel de choclo.
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.
Empanada, anticuchos, choripan and pebre
Having visited Chile many times and been spoiled by the hospitality of the generous people, I replicated this meal in part because it’s representative and delicious, but also in part to warn other visitors lest they make the same mistakes as me. You see, Chileans love to barbeque, an event where they fire up an electric or coal grill, pop open some beers, invite around the (often numerous) family and friends and merrily while away a summer afternoon. Although advertised as “lunch”, these events usually start at 3pm at the earliest, and so an unsuspecting guest may be ravenous by the time food is first offered. Said food is typically an assortment such as what I have made here: empanadas, anticuchos, choripan and pebre. A decadent and full meal, right? Wrong. This is just the beginning. There will often be entire steaks, chicken, salads, rice and potatoes to follow (and likely an obnoxiously luxurious dessert after that). So, as good as these items are, heed my warning that they are merely the entree, and perhaps just delicately nibble on choice samples, lest you ruin the barbecue by overeating to the point of illness. This combination of foods is also typical of a “fonda” (patriotic workers party), and there is no day of the year more prone to fondas than Chilean independence day, September 18. The whole country stops on this day to gorge themselves on such traditional fare, dance cueca (the national dance of the rooster and the hen), and drink their body weight in pisco (the national spirit). 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. Alas, the humble service station meat pie must suffice. Anticuchos (also sometimes called fierritos, meaning little irons) are skewers, usually including a mix of beef, chorizo, capsicum and onion, grilled over an open flame. They are popular all around the Andes, the name even meaning “cut from the eastern region of the Andes”, dating back to pre-Columbian times when the Incan’s used native llama rather than beef. Following Spanish colonisation, the dish spread all over South America, including to the west of the Andes: Chile. Choripan is a portmanteau of the words chorizo (a spicy sausage that required cooking) and pan (bread). It is therefore a delicious small spicy hotdog, usually eaten with home-made mayonnaise and/or pebre. Pebre is a salad that combines buffered onion, tomato, coriander, oil, salt, garlic and lemon juice to create a magical concoction that pairs perfectly with all of the above foods: providing a fresh zing and crunch as soon all the meat, fats and carbohydrates start to feel a bit stodgy.