What, you may be asking, does an Asheville B&B have to do with Chilean cuisine? And the answer is this: James and I, as your hosts at the Carolina Bed & Breakfast, have a longstanding love of food and travel. One of our favorite things to do when we travel to a new place is to try as many of the local foods as we can and, above all, to go to a local market. From my first foray into French cooking in Paris, through the cuisines of Southeast Asia, on into the fruits and produce of England, exploring different ingredients and incorporating them into my cooking has been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. So when we decided to travel to South America to hike the Big Circuit at Torres Del Paine in Patagonia we also decided to end our trip with a food and wine tour of Chile.
Chile is an extremely narrow land bordered by the Andes Mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. At its widest it is no more than 150 miles from mountain to sea. In the center of the country is a 500 mile long river valley rich with vineyards and farms. To me this defines Chilean cuisine. Fresh seasonal produce is abundant and seafood is one of the most loved ingredients. Indeed, more than one of our guides told us that young adults in Santiago will typically end a night of partying with a visit to the Mercado Central Seafood Market for fresh clams, crabs and shrimp. Not exactly our pizza or mac and cheese!
On day one of our trip, while wandering through the streets of Santiago, we noticed an unusual looking green drink which seemed to be on every table. Upon investigation we discovered that this was a fresh fruit concoction of mint leaves and lime juice, sort of a “virgin Mojito”. The Chileans love fruit juices and this was refreshing not only in its taste but also in its visual appeal.
Later we learned about another “Agua Fresca” which was almost a meal in itself. At the market we saw stalls of grain sellers which almost always included a
large display of cooked barley. This would be put into a glass and then a puree of re-hydrated peaches and water would be added on top. (The peaches are dried whole with the pit included). One eats the mixture with a spoon and a straw. We did not get to actually taste one. My impression was that it might not be too wise to buy a drink like this off the street.And then of course there is the most famous of all Chilean Drinks: the Pisco Sour. Made with Pisco Brandy, fresh lime
juice, egg whites and a dash of bitters, there is a long standing argument over which country makes the best Pisco Sour: Chile or Peru. I’ve had them both and it seems pretty close to me.
The markets of Chile are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. One of the first things we noticed was how big everything grew. We saw bunches of celery that were as big around as a small watermelon leaving us to wonder if the ones we got in the USA were cut down to a smaller size! Corn is equally large, although not eaten as sweet corn; it is more commonly grated or ground down and used in tortillas, tamales, or corn pudding. Stuffed zucchini or Zapallito
Rellano is a comfort food in Chile and in the markets they sell pre-cored zucchini ready to stuff. Salads are everywhere and generally safe to eat. If they peel the tomatoes you know you are good to go! The avocado is ubiquitous. They have more than seven varieties available and we found mashed avocado being used as a spread in sandwiches, avocado stuffed with seafood, and avocado in drinks. Our host in Santiago, Liz Caskey, of Liz Caskey Culinary Wine & Experiences, even sauteed avocados which gave them a delightful nutty flavor.
Empanadas are a popular snack here. These are small pastries filled with combinations of meat, cheese and other flavorings which are sold at stalls all over the country. While we were in Punta Arenas at the far southern tip of Chile, Dan Elsberg, owner of the Tragaluz Patagonia Bed & Breakfast, suggested we travel down to the docks where on the second floor of the fish market there was a small stand that sold very good empanadas. We would never have found the spot without his directions and we were so lucky that we did. These were hands down the best empandas we had in Chile. A light and airy crust was filled with
king crab, shrimp and cheese, scallops or abalone as you choose. The stall was tiny with two little tables outside and the kitchen inside was about the size of my closet. Without the help of our innkeeper friends we would have missed this wonderful spot. (The knowledge your innkeeper has to share is one of the pluses of staying at a Bed & Breakfast in Chile as well as in Asheville!). Empanadas can be baked or fried and as big or as small as you want to make them. They can also be frozen in advance and then cooked to order. I am looking forward to experimenting with some different fillings and flavors for our hors d’oeuvres hour at the Carolina.
Finally, Seafood! People often associate Patagonia with beef which does exist, but Chile is
actually the world’s second largest source of lamb after New Zealand. US Customs does not allow Chilean lamb to be imported in the the USA so this was unknown to us. And while we did enjoy the lamb, we were there for the seafood.
The Chileans have an abundance of seafood of every kind: pink razor clams are served on the half shell with a parmesan sauce (take that, Food Network!), shrimp or abalone comes in a garlic butter sauce (“Pil-Pil”), king crab is mixed with avocado and onion and served as a timbale, whole fish comes prepared in a wide variety of styles and it is all super fresh. For the most part the Chileans don’t like spicy dishes. Indeed we were told
that the spice is almost never incorporated into the dish itself but is usually served in a sauce (of which there are many) on the side. People do make their own sauces but more often buy them at the market where they form a painter’s palette of color. Even seaweed is dried then stewed as a meat substitute (Nope, didn’t try that–it’s not generally served anywhere other than at home).
After four days devoted just to food and wine, I thought we had a pretty good idea of what Chilean Cuisine was all about. Of course, that was just until I got home and started to look for recipes. I think I may have to go back! But until then, James and I are looking forward to sharing with you tales of our trek in Patagonia and some of the flavours of South America.