Thursday, December 10, 2009

Gastronomic Geography of Chile

Photo of Oreste Plath by Juan Domingo Marinello
Oreste Plath (1907-1996), born Octavio Müller Leiva, was a Chilean folklorist, poet and author of more that 40 books.  Among his exhaustive studies of folklore and popular culture, he wrote several “Geographies,” ..of Chilean Myth and Legend, …of  Chilean Religion, and of Chilean Gastronomy.[1]  The latter, translated below, is among the best overviews of Chilean cuisine, and answers the questions “What do Chileans eat?” and “What is Chilean Food?” in a way no foreigner can.

Oreste’s Spanish is lush and poetic; my translation is neither, but I have tried to convey as much of his style as I could. The original, an article in The Trip, Magazine of the State Railroads[2] can be found at Memoria Chilean.  Your suggestions on improving (or correcting) my translation are welcome.

“I have been in the depths and heights or this land
And have tried to interpret the country’s soul and landscape.”

Oreste Plath


Gastronomic Geography of Chile
by Oreste Plath, 1962

Following the physical geography of Chile from north to south, one develops a gastronomic knowledge of the food not served in fashionable restaurants nor found on hotel menus, but in humble businesses, on the simple tables of the city and the countryside. Every town contributes its foods as part of the dietary atlas.  Every region owns a style and a taste.

Geography and History

In Chile the varied geography combines with the realities of production and history:  indigenous diets, foods brought by the invading Inca, and the contributions of the Spanish conqueror, shape the triple fusion that is the Chilean cuisine.

Customs and Festivals Related to Food

There are Chilean food customs determined by summer and winter and foods associated with religious and profane holidays, such as the food of Fridays, of Holy Week, of the supper of St. John (June 24, with St. John’s stew[3]); of the fiesta of the Cross of May (May 3 to 30); of the food of the dead (November 2); and of hot toddies served at wakes, to comfort and to combat the cold of dawn.  Holiday foods are prepared for Christmas, New Year, national holidays, trips to the country, saints’ days or birthdays, weddings, and baptisms.   And for threshings, potato diggings, grape harvests, rodeos, shearings, working parties, or celebrations for setting house beams.


Some regions are known for their fish and seafood, others for vegetables, or for meats and sausages, wines and ciders, sweets and fruits. Chile is blessed with a sea that offers more that two hundred eatable species within its tripartite divisions:  From Iquique to Coquimbo, the sea’s bounty is rich; from Tongoy to Constitución, less rich; and from Talcahuano to Chiloé and the southern archipelago, very rich. There are ruff, swordfish, grunts, bonito, tuna, sardines, anchovies, croakers, conger eels, flounder, mackerel, jerguilla, snoek, dogfish, sand perch, mullet, rock bass, silversides, hake, cod, eel or sea snake, blennies, elephant fish, sheepsheads, pampinito, brick sea bass, breca and octopus.

For shellfish the zones are Antotagasta, Talcahano, Puerto Montt, Chiloé, Aisén and the Magallanes, [Chile’s far south] which provide blue mussels, abalones, beach clams, sea squirts, razor clams, ribbed mussels, crabs, scallops, sea urchins, crayfish, and those Juan Fernandez lobsters that fly all over the Americas integrating themselves into the menus of grand banquets; and there is the oyster, the finest and most valuable of Chilean mollusks, said by followers domestic and foreign, to be one of the world’s best; and more, there are spider crabs; and all along the coast are eatable seaweeds, laver, and bull kelp, an algae that is one of the globe’s largest plants, whose fleshy root is eaten in salads. And there are sperm whales, humpbacked and blue, pursued all over the seas for their tasty filets.

Chilean wines

And then there are the wines, the Chilean’s second blood, those grape musts, those broths that enhance conviviality, that can be loose, sold from the barrel; or in bottles with labels bearing names of saints like San Jorge, San Pedro, San Carlos, Don Bosoc; and of female saints like Santa Carolina, Santa Lucía, Santa Rosa, Santa Rita, Santa Matilde, Santa Enmiliana, Santa Filomena, Santa Elena, and following the calendar of saints’ days and the mystical, are the mellow names of the Spaniards, Basques, and French;  of Cousiño, Errázuriz, Urmenta, Undurraga, Tocornal and Ochagavía.  

Wine is not ignored in summer, but is accompanied by minced fruit, ice, and sugar to make Borgioñia, wine and fruit punch, and wine with strawberries.  And when the wine must be replaced by grape juice, by poor wine from clay jugs, or by cider pressed from grapes, toasted flour is added to give it more consistency, more body; a mixture that changes its name with the length of the country calling itself “pihueloI,” ”chupilcda,” or “chicha with arithmetic.”

Sweets made by the hands of nuns


Candy and pastry making, a Spanish inheritance that arrived in Chile through the conquistadors and was spread through the convents, the nuns. Spanish religious women made the most delicate preserves such as fruits and flowers of sugar paste, icings or marzipan, nougats, and dulce de leche.  Indian Sisters, from within and outside of convents, made sweets the Chileans call by Arab and Hispanic names: alfajor, alfeñique, almendrados, roscas, coronillas, cajetillas and merenges.

And they were the grandmothers of the townswomen who sweetened Chilean’s lives and who gave birth to the towns of sweet lineage like La Serena, with its fruit preserves; Elqui and Vicuña with their sugar paste candies or peach pulps; La Ligua with its candies known as liguanos; Melipilla and Curacaví with their meringues, Curicó with its cakes; Constitución with its sweets called Margaritas; and Chillán with its sweetened poultry “substance” called “Substance of Chillán.”[4] 

Fresh and Exquisite Fruits 

In this delightful appetizing geography are fruits, beginning in the extreme north with the subtropical fragrance and taste of mangos, passion fruit, sugar cane, guavas, pineapples, pacayes, pepinos, bananas, an astonishingly juicy and exquisite small lime [key lime], and cantaloupes.

Photo Lúcuma
In the “Little North” figs appear, along with cherimoyas, the fragrant Chilean papaya, and the lúcuma.  And then comes the “Central Zone” with its dialog of leaf and fruit whose vines span half of Chile, the great variety of peaches, nectarines, the dented peaches, the yellow and Virgin aurimelos; the apples that seem torn from oil paintings, the huge quinces, the pears: Lloicas, Luisas, water pears, Christmas and Easter pears; apricot plums, Purísimas and Claudias; the dove heart cherries; the red and white strawberries; the melons, cactus fruits, moscateles, flaming red watermelons, oranges, and following the pomegranates, a white fig and a black one, fit for the best table or for an exposition.

Taste of the Big North[5] 

The provincial tastes begin in the Big North and where the strong and spicy flavors found in Peru and Bolivia continue: salted beef; chalón or salón, salted or frozen lamb for the northern cazuela; llama filets, guanaco roasts, ceviche like in Peru; stuffed sea urchins; perol de locos [abalone ceviche], rabbit or octopus or shrimp picante [in a cheese and chili sauce], and conger chupín [stew with tomatoes].

The fruits are tested by the burning sun and taste of the tropics, and the wine seems hidden in the canyons and little valleys.

Taste of the Little North 

In the provinces of the Little North green fruit trees emerge from among the rocks, the mines.  And the sun’s conquest begins, making fresh fruits dry, like raisins from white grapes and dry peaches stripped of their seeds; and the preserved fruit, its juice turned to honey.  And their wines, that are like the Lord’s tears, and the pisco, a drink like aguardiente [6], with a very pleasing taste.  And the shellfish here deliver a delicious meal of seafood.

Taste of the Islands

There are insular foods and there are food filled islands like the Juan Fernandez’s with their lobster. And if fish or shellfish become tiring, there are doves marinated in oil, vinegar and spices, or however you would want them; and kid goat roasts are part of the islander’s diet. 

And the most isolated food of any island is that of Rapoa Nui or Easter Island, astounding the scientific world, whose island food style is Polynesian cooking with hot stones.  And there are fish and shellfish that taste nothing like those here. One eats a long rough potato; an exquisite sweet potato, a cooked banana.  Bananas are fruit, stew and bread and at the side are pineapples, figs, plums, and peanuts.

Taste of the Central Zone 

The provinces that make up the Central Zone are the essence of nature, the heart of Chile where one eats empanadas [turnovers] made with air dried pino or picadillo [hash] and baked in an adobe oven fueled with hard mesquite-like wood; the chicken cazuela with oregano, the pastel de choclo in its clay bowl, the humita [tamale], or rather the “umita” of the Quechuas, smelling of basil; the puchero, essence of the Spanish stew, served with various salads; the pancutras or pantrucas and resbalosas, hojitas de alamo, and panchitas [types of dumplings], throw-me-ins for the pot of jerky or crackling meatballs, and always broken eggs; beans with pumpkin; beans with corn or wheat hominy, or with cracklings, bacon or chuchoca, yellow corn meal often served with potatoes that multiplies in flavor when added to a turkey or pork cazuela; and the various locros based on corn; ajíaco, a soup of fried meat, onions, eggs, potatoes and chili; valdiviano, a dish born in Valdivia.  It contains roasted jerky pounded into bits, onions, eggs, potatoes, spices and the essential chili.  These are the vegetable medleys that the conquistador and founder of our cities, Don Pedro de Valdivia, ordered as wages for his soldiers stationed in this region.  And with these ingredients the retched soldiers made this soup that took the name Valdivia and so remained bundled into the history of Chilean food.

Here the stews, common among the Quechuas and Araucanians, that end in “--can” originated: tomaticán, minced corn, crushed tomatoes, fried meat, minced onion and chili; charquicán, a mash of vegetables, corn, ground or pounded jerky, served with a rain of parsley and accompanied by a beef rib, or if you prefer, with pickled onions; the luchicán, potatoes with seaweed and fried onion; sangricán blood with potatoes and fried onion; and chercán, with a base of toasted wheat flour.

The dishes based on the outsides and insides of animal are abundant:   chanfaina, stew of sheep offal; wrapped malotillas [?], chunchules, fried or grilled beef or mutton intestines; testicles in soups or fried; trunk [?] soup; pork ribs or prepared as an arrollado [filled meat roll]; various blood sausages served with rice or mashed potatoes; pork hocks colored with chili sauce; pork headcheese, meat and tongue seasoned, pressed and molded. 

And the pebre or the pebres, those sauces that condiment and add flavor; minces of cilantro, garlic, chili, and seasonings, or the one with tomatoes, garlic, and chili called chancho en piedra [pig in stone], because it is ground in a stone mortar and for the light taste pork it takes when dressed with it. 

In winter there are sopapillas [fritters] and doughnuts in honey or chancaca [brown sugar loaf] syrup that temper the southern days.

In the summer it is mote con husillos [peaches stewed with wheat] that is the drink and sweet with the spirit of Chile, about which they say “More Chilean than mote con huesillos,” although the Araucanians [Mapuche] adopted the word mote, cooked corn or wheat, from the Quechua.

Taste of the Araucaria

And in the south are various provinces in the where the indigenous reservations are found, remains of the Araucarian people who conserve their food traditions, a different Chilean cuisine, with blood dishes like ñachi and apol; with dishes of wheat and corn; of horse meat, of a solidified chili paste called merquén, and of corn beer, muday.

European Taste

European cuisine, via the German settlers who colonized the south and brought German cuisine with hams and sausages that rival the best in the world, pork hocks served with sauerkraut, and Valdivia beer.  They like apple tarts called kuchen and many wild fruit jams and a delicious apple cider that tastes like Champaign.

Taste of the Austral South

Next come the provinces of the Austral south where fish and shellfish have their greatest representation. The oyster appears, and this is the land where the potato is native.  These are the dominions of the oyster and the potato. 

The amazement of the Chilean and the foreigner begin with curanto, opulent cooking with rare flavor, made for strong palates. A banquet cooked in a hole in the earth because its contents would never fit in a pot and that is not served on a plate.  Curanto is a burial, over hot rocks, of shellfish, fish, pork, chicken, sausages and vegetables. It is a gastronomic backfill that when uncovered delights the eye and the palate. And there is the pulmay, a pot of shellfish cooked in their own juices; the cazuela of Chiloe made of shellfish instead of meat; the roast sierra [fish]; the Chiloe chorizos [spicy sausages] that are the best reward; for good reason they say “Well done, deserves chorizos.”

And in the manner of bread, strange bread, are trapaleles, mella, and catutos [steamed potato or wheat doughs].

The final province closing southern Chile is the Magallanes [lands of Magellan] where sheep raised for wool provide an abundance of mutton and lamb. Young sucking lamb of no more that four pounds is the best regional roast, and lamb surrenders its blood for blood sausages filled with vegetables; and its innards for soups.  And there are the products of the sea, fish along with mussels, little sea urchins and spider [king] crabs. The food varies in relation to the urban population and the workers of the sheep ranches, where they serve two breakfasts, the second of chops fried with eggs. 

The pioneers of the region, the Yugoslavs, and the nearby Argentineans have established other culinary novelties. The Yugoslav community, with its typical foods: Yugoslav stew, their cabbage dishes, their sweet cakes, the porsuratas [?], and their povetiza [pastry roll].  And the gnocchi and pastas reminiscent of Italian cooking from the nearby border with Yugoslavia.  The Argentinean influence is in the open air barbeques; combinations of spicy sausages, pieces of pork, lamb, beef, wieners, kidneys and liver.

As a fruit pleasure appear strawberries, red currants, raspberries; and among the wild fruits are the murtilla, the chura and the calafate, whose berries are made into jams and jellies.  

Taste of Chile

This trip bringing together culinary peculiarities as well as the national taste, does not include all the dishes or tastes of Chile.  On this table, whose foods may excel but cannot be compared, the tablecloth lacks many dishes remembered and known, but what can not be left out is the affection that the people have for their cooking, the cordiality that is established by eating in common and expressed by the saying “welcome to your house, with pebre by the spoonful;” by curanto, where the meal companions gather in a circle increasing the companionship around the cooking pit, the endless table; by the spit roasted mutton, which requires only the desire to eat and a knife; by the mate cup, which is passed from mouth to mouth; by the horn or glass of wine that establishes a family unity among the recently arrived or strangers; by cachada, the collective giant glass that is conviviality and solidarity.

And the Chilean doesn’t get on the train without his package or basket that holds his snack, perhaps of Peruvian potato salad or of cocaví [Quechuan for travel food], perhaps a ration of coca leaf that the Bolivian or Peruvian Indians carry on their trips. Causeo [Ayamara for travel food] or cocaví may be a tied chicken, some hard boiled eggs, pickled onions, olives, some green chilies, and without fail wine, and although it may be jug wine it should always be pure, vino moro [Moorish wine] not “baptized” with water.

And of this cocaví the seat companions ate. Unimportant that it was offered, enough that the train had shared.

O. P.

[1] Oreste Plath (1907-1996) – Pesentación. Memoria Chilena. On line at
[2] 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
[3] Beef, smoked pork, sausages, chicken, pork skin, onions, pepper and cumin, layered and marinated over night and then simmered in white wine.
[4] “Among the recipes of Chillan that have had national or International impact is ‘Substancia,’ a candy that adds to the vegetable sweetness the delicious flavor of chicken and of and beef bones rich in softened gelatins “  Typical foods,  Ilustre Municipio de Chillán,  on line at
[5] El Norte Grande, the Big North is Chile north of the Copiapó River (roughly half way between Antofagasta and Huasco on the map) including the Atacama Desert; El Norte Chico, “The Little North” is less arid and includes river irrigated valleys from the Copiapó south to Aconcagua, between Tongoy and Valparaiso on the map; El Centgro is Chile’s Mediterranean heartland from North of Valparaiso to approximately Constitutión and including Santiago; El Sur, The South, is the Araucaria, beginning at approximately Concepción and extending to the southern end of Chile Island, land of abundant rainfall and temperate forests; and the Austral South is Chile south of Chiloe.
[6] Pisco and aguardiente are brandy, distilled from grapes.

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