Thursday, June 11, 2009

Charquicán, tomaticán and other “—cáns”

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Such tasty charquicán!
With beans and corn
parsley and oregano
tempting to the least sweet toothed.
And at the height of happiness
onion, pickled chili,
and, instead of sociable wine
a bottle of cider.[1]

Not infrequently, these posts start when my wife, “mas chilena que los porotos” (more Chilean than beans), wants a dish from her childhood. This time it was charquicán (char-key-kán). As the household cook (since I’m retired and she has a real job), I hit the cookbooks and the internet, and came up with something pretty close to her family dish: ground beef hash with potatoes, onion, squash, tomatoes, and corn, and an egg on top.

And that, evidently, is pretty much what 21st century charquicán is all about. But, of course, it has history—a long history.

The name comes from two indigenous American languages, the Quecuha "charqui" (“dry meat,” also the origin of the English “jerky”) and from the Mapuche "cancan" (or kaήkan, “roast”). And, since charqui has been adopted into Chilean Spanish, the origin of the name seems to be Chilean, probably Mapuche, from the colonial era.[2]
As in other areas of the Americas (Argentina, Uruguay, California, and the North American south west) cattle introduced by the Spanish in the early colonial period prospered:
…the ten cattle that Don Francisco de Alvarado imported in 1548 multiplied so rapidly that… there were no hacienda owners in the colony who did not have “some six, some eight, some ten and some twelve thousand and more cows.” [3]
Charqui chilenlo

Cattle were so plentiful that:
…in the first years of the eighteenth century they were worth no more that 2 to 4 pesos and very often they were killed to take the tallow and the hide; the rest was thrown out as almost useless, or else they cut the defatted meat in thin strips, and sold the sun dried strips under the name charqui. This entirely indigenous method of conserving meat, characteristic of dry and burning climates, has since spread, developed greatly, and has become one of the most fruitful industries of the country.[4]
Thus, by the eighteenth century, charqui was one of the basics of Chilean diet, along with flour, “beans with salt and ají, or dry chili.”[5]
But when carquicán became popular is unclear. The earliest references I’ve found come from the independence period when in 1817, South American liberator, General José de San Martín supplied a variety of charquicán to his soldiers on their way across the Andes from Argentina to attack the Spanish forces in Santiago:
Needing a nutritious and healthy preserved food which would serve to restore the strength of soldiers and be adequate to the frigid temperatures that they had to endure, it was found in a popular preparation called charquicán, composed of sun-dried meat, toasted and ground, and seasoned with grease and hot chili. When well compacted, a week’s ration can be transported in backpacks or suitcases, and with only the addition of hot water and toasted maize meal, it provides a dish as nutritious as it is pleasant. [6]
Just how pleasant may be a matter of taste, but the home-cooked variety found favor with the Englishwoman Maria Graham (later Lady Maria Callcott), widow of an English Naval officer who found herself in Valparaiso in 1822:
…a large dish of charqui-can was placed before us. It consists of fresh beef very much boiled, with pieces of charqui or dried beef, slices of dried tongue, and pumkin, cabbage, potatoes, and other vegetables, in the same dish. Our hostess immediately began eating from the dish with her fingers, and invited us to do the same; but one of her daughters brought us each a plate and fork, saying she knew that such was our custom. However, the old lady persisted in putting delicate pieces on our plates with her thumb and finger. The dish was good, and well cooked. [7]
By the late 19th century, charquicán had become a national institution, immortalized in popular poetry and song[8].
So… a recipe? The Nuevo Manual de Cocina (New Cook Book) of 1882 provides the following:
Charquicán from fresh meat or jerky: Roast a piece of beef roast or loin and when it is done, pound it and shred it well; boil squash, green beans, peas, potatoes; then fry this [the vegetables] in “color” [fat colored with chili] with onion and corn cut from the cob; add the meat to this and fry for a moment, then add the necessary water and allow go boil. If it is jerky, wash it and toast it, pound it and for the rest, continue as with the meat. [9]
Most of today’s recipies don’t use jerky, finding the flavor too strong, and ground beef is a reasonable alternative to leftover roast, but otherwise the recipe is not too far from mine, compiled from a variety of sources and my wife’s suggestions:
But charquicán is not all: there are other “ –cans
….common among the Quechuas and Mapuches, like tomaticán; corn cut from the cob, chopped tomatoes, fried meat, chopped onion, and chili; charquicán, minced vegetables, kernels of corn, ground or shredded jerky, served with a sprinkle of parsley and accompanied with a beef rib or, if you wish, a pickled onion, luchicán with luche [laver, seaweed] and fried onion; sangricán, blood with potatoes and fried onion; and chercán, based on toasted wheat flour.[10]

While I haven’t tried luchicán or cherán, and doubt that I will be called on to make sangricán, I did have a request for tomaticán, below.
While the family tomaticán is made from beef, and is topped with hard boiled egg and parsley, the recipe in the Atlantic Online (Aug. 18, 1999) review of Ruth Van Waerebeek-Gonzalez book The Chilean Kitchen, is pretty close to the dish above. Try it.

[1] El Padre Padilla, Feb. 11, 1886, quoted in Palma Alvarado, Daniel. De apititos y cañas, El consumo de alimentos y bebidas en Santiago al fines del siglo XIX. Historia No. 37, Vol II, July-December, 2004: 391-417 in line at (all translations are mine)
[2] Etimología de Charquicán, Etimologias de Chile on line at
[3] Vergara, Luis Correa. 1938 Agricultura Chilena, Vol. II p. 145. Santiago: Imprenta Nascimento on line at
[4] Gay, Claudia 1862 Agricultura Vol 1, p. 20. Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago online at
[5] Archivo Nacional, Archivo Vidal Gormaz, Vol. 14. Papeles de Felipe
Rauzá, as quoted in Pereira Salas, Eugenio. 1977 (1943) Apuntes para la historia de la cocina chilena. P. 60. Santiago : Universitaria
[6] Mitre, Bartolomé. 1887. Historia del Libertador José de San Martín y de la Emancipación de América on line at (And on the well researched blog La Tinta de Mi Lapis: Charquicán, by Javiera González on line a
[7] Graham, Maria (later Callcott, Maria, Lady) 1824. Journal of a residence in Chile, during the year 1822. And a voyage from Chile to Brazil in 1823. p. 160. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, And Green on line at
[8] Letras de canciones, Repertorio Del Grupo Chile De Aches, Asociación de Chilenos en España, on line at (also discovered in the blog La Tinta de Mi Lapis: Charquicán, by Javiera González on line a
[9] Manual de Cocina. 1882. Valparaiso: Libereria del Mercuruo de Oresrtes L.Tornero. p. 45. on line at
[10] Plath, Oreste. 1962. Geografía gastronómica de Chile, En viaje / Empresa de los Ferrocarriles del Estado. Santiago : La Empresa, 1933-1973. v., año XXIX, n° 343, (mayo 1962), p. 181–184. On line at


  1. loved it! i spent two weeks at Chile and loved all the things i ate.

    your blog is really nice, congrats! really nice work about the chilean food. :)

    i'll quote you and link you in my blog, hope you don't mind...

  2. Muito obrigado, flanzie. I'd be happy for the link.


  3. I took me a long time to read, so make it sorter.

    1. Sorry. I've made the recipe bigger and easier to read. Hope it turned out.


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