Monday, July 5, 2010

Eating Chilean Horse Meat

Señora Ercilla Curiche, Mapuche Kimche (wise elder) speaks about some of the food she ate as a child:
We ate meat; pork, lamb, horse.  But the meat wasn’t cooked like it is today; it was semi-cooked, people only cooked it a little and then ate it; especially horse meat.  This helped, providing more energy and taking greater advantage of this type of food, of meat.  Today the children haven’t had an opportunity to know these foods that we grandparents had. They only eat artificial foods, foods that contain a lot of sugar and that don’t promote physical or intellectual growth. This is the reality that today’s children encounter.[1]
For many the idea of eating horse meat is abhorrent, emotionally akin to eating the family pet.  But for much of the world (and until recently in England and the US) it is an accepted food; reminiscent perhaps of harder times, but accepted.  Among Chile’s Mapuche and others with rural origins it also engenders emotions; but here it means wholesome, natural and traditional, in contrast to the sugar, salt and chemical laden industrial foods that fill our supermarkets and children.

Horses have a long history as food in Europe and Asia, from the Paleolithic horse hunt pictured in France's Lascaux cave (left), to today’s horse meat butcher shops in Rome’s Testaccio Market (below right).

But horses, which evolved in the Americas before spreading to Asia, went extinct here 11 to 12,000 years ago and were absent until the Spanish reintroduced them.  The first horses came to Chile briefly in 1535, with the unsuccessful expedition of Diego de Almagro, but the first permanent herds owe their arrival to Pedro de Valdivia’s expedition in 1540.  By 1544, selective breeding conducted by Father Rodrigo Gonzalez Marmolejo began, leading to the development of the Chilean horse, the oldest registered breed in the Americas[2].

Lautaro (Pedro Subercaseaux)

 The Mapuche, the native people of south central Chile, first encountered horses in battle with the invading conquistadors and were no match for the mounted Spanish warriors with their iron weapons and amour.  At first, according to legend, they thought the horses and their riders were a single beast, but they soon learned that horse and rider were separate and mortal. After suffering disastrous defeats in the hands of the Spanish in the early years, Lautaro a young Mapuche captive, son of a chief and stable boy for Pedro De Valdivia, escaped on horseback taking with him knowledge of riding and the tactics necessary to defeat the Spanish.   He became the Mapuche military leader, united the bands into an effective fighting force, and defeated the Spanish at fort Tucapel.  Pedro de Valdivia came to the defeated fort and while camped in the ruins was attacked by Lautaro’s forces, defeated, captured and executed.[3]  

While the Chilean conquistadores tried to keep horses out of Mapuche hands, Spanish retreating from Buenos Aires abandoned a dozen or more, and by 1580 their descendants and other escaped horses had grown to 12,000 head.[4]  By 1600 constant Spanish attacks had decimated the Mapuche and transformed them from a largely sedentary, riverine culture of farmers into mobile equestrian bands of warrior-herders, and trade across the Andes supplied the Mapuche with more horses than the Spaniards had.  They were to hold the Spanish, and later the Chilean, armies at bay for the next 250 years.  The key was their horses, which became central to Mapuche culture. 
The meat of their horses became, and remains today, their favorite food, the melted fat and blood their drink. Blood sausage was reserved for the owner of a horse or mare that had been ceremonially sacrificed. Blood was also used to wash their hair and to gain strength through its magical powers; the beating heart cured respiratory illnesses of children. Its fat burned in lamps. Travel shelters were made with horse skins, the hair inside. Skin also made their beds, cloaks, loin cloths, women’s aprons and boots. With the leather they made lariats, reins, saddles. The manes were used to make ropes and the weskel (a ring men used to increase sexual pleasure).

Having become integrated into the daily life of the Mapuche, the horse was also incorporated into ceremonies related to the supernatural world. In the nguillatún [the major annual ceremony] it was sacrificed and along with the riding equipment formed part of the funereal goods that accompanied its owner to the other side of the mythical sea
Horse meat in Chile today

Today, over four centuries after the Mapuche obtained horses, they continue to be central to the culture, and horse meat continues to be eaten; and not just by Mapuche.  No data is available on the percentage of Chileans who eat horse meat, but a recent study of dietary habits of 200 Mapuche residents of the Santiago region found that it is eaten by 31% of households surveyed.[6]  Overall, Chilean horse meat consumption averages only 600 grams per person per year, but it is higher than lamb, at 400 grams.  Chile has some 200 equine butcher shops, mostly located in working class neighborhoods in Santiago and to the south.  The meat is “of good quality and, well presented in defined cuts similar to beef cuts.”  Chile also has some 33 horse meat processing plants, making cold cuts and sausages. Horse meat jerky is available in super markets... at least occasionally.

Equine butcher shops in Temuco.  Photo Credit:  lorhuc

Temuco, capital of Chile’s Araucanía Region, heartland of Mapuche culture, has 20 or more equine butcher shops for a population of a little over a 260,000.  An article called “Boom in horse meat” in the July 4, 2005 edition of the Austral, the region's daily newspaper, reported:
Perhaps the most characteristic equine butcher shop is Carnes Salazar [Salazar Meats] with several decades of experience.  The owners Cristina, David and Pablo, follow the path of their father, Sergio, specializing in horse meat. "Consumption has grown a lot.  The people like it because it has changed greatly. Before they thought that it was smelly and tough, from cart horses.” Their animals are cleanly raised and provide a tasty and tender meat.  As a meat market they sell three 1300 lb. horse carcasses a week. A fattened house provides a tender and tasty product.  A thin horse, on the other hand, yields tough meat. Prices for the animal have increased, due to the high demand. Now there are more meat markets too.  
Carnes Salazar buys animals from producers in the south and also from a specialized horse fattener in Talca.  “People have learned a lot about this meat. Sometimes they bought it not knowing that it was horse and then returned to congratulate us.  They change their minds quickly."  Carnes Salazar has become known for selling their seasoned churrasco [sandwich steak].  The consumption of this meat is democratic.  All socioeconomic levels look for it.  The rural people look for cuts with bone to prepare the traditional cazuela.[7]
In Temuco’s Pinto market, another equine butcher with 22 years of experience has a sligltly different take on his customers:  “Sixty to 70% of out consumers are rural people.  The Mapuche have taught the people of Temuco to eat this meat, and they now consume a lot.  It’s much healthier.”

Nutritionally, he is correct; horse meat is nutritionally superior to more common meats: lower in fat, calories and cholesterol, and higher in protein.[8]


My experience with horse meat was in Temuco, in the Mapuche restaurant Kokavi where I had horse steak.  It was tender and flavorful, cooked medium-well.  The taste was very much like beef.

While Kokavi is an unpretentious neighborhood restaurant, favored by local Mapuche and winka (non-Mapuche), horse meat is also served in more elegant venues.  Mapuche Chef Juan Carlos Quiñeman of Santiago’s Hotel Four Points by Sheridan recently won the silver medal in the XXIII National Concourse of Gastronomy in the traditional cuisine category for his Koru Kawell con Tukun e Iwiñkofke, a cazuela of horse meat with toasted wheat, served with fried squash-dough breads and a relish of wheat hominy, tomatoes and chili.  You may not find cazuela de caballo con locro y sopaipillas con pebre de mote every day at the dining room of the Four Points, but Chef Quiñeman is there:

“I’ve always been restless to do something related to my roots with distinct flavor because it is prepared by someone who carries the blood.  They are memories that come from my childhood,” he explains.[9]

[1] Actas de los diálogos interculturales entre cosmovisiones científicas y mapuche, Segunda Asamblea Plenaria. On line at (Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.)
[2] The Chilean Horse: Americas Oldest Horse. On line at
[3] Battle of Tucapel, Wikipedia. On line at
[4] Criollo (horse), Wikipedia.  On line at
[5] Ulloa, Gonzalo. 2010 El caballo: el recurso que revolucionó al mundo mapuche. Revista Travesía. 13 February, 2010 On line at
[6]  Schnettler, Berta, Huaiquinir, Valeska, Mora, Marcos et al. Diferencias étnicas y de aculturación en el consumo de alimentos en la Región Metropolitana de Santiago, Chile. ALAN, dic. 2009, vol.59, no.4, p.407-418  On line at
[7] Avilés, Hardy. 2005 El boom de la carne de caballo: Crece en forma "galopante" El Austral, Reportajes.  July 4, 2005.  On line at
[8] Luengo, Juan. El caballo: una alternativa en el consumo actual de carnes. TECNO VET: Año 7 N°3, diciembre 2001. On line at,1409,SCID%253D9611%2526ISID%253D467,00.html
[9] Mundaca, Gianina.  Al rescate de la cocina mapuche.  Km Cero.  On line at


  1. Hola soy Angelica y vengo a visitarte por tu entrevista en revista Paula Quisiera que me visitaras ya que tengo un blog de comida casera chilena donde doy a conocer las comidas de nuestro país
    Espero tu visita

  2. Wow Jim!
    I just read your interview at Paula.
    Thank you so much for recommend my blog. I feel truly honor!
    And I also love the idea of the roasted tomatoes. Thanks again!

  3. My pleasure Pilar. I hope it brings you lots of readers. Pero noté que no dices nada sobre mis caballitos; bueno, se que no es gusto de todos. :-)



  4. Me pillaste, creo que nunca he comido carne de caballo... en charqui tal vez me atrevería.

  5. Mi familia chilena nuca había comido tampoco, pero sabes como somos los antropólogos gringos.

    And to visit Pilar’s fine blogs, just click on her name and follow from there.

  6. In Barcelona i used to eat a lot of horse meat. Pretty juicy and the flavor is meatier than beef.

    Anyway, is a great product to eat. Maybe chilean people prefers to watch them running and to win some bucks with the bets than eat them.

  7. Chef, I suspect that horse meat is a bit too exotic for middle class Chileans, as it is for most of the occidental world's population. But what do you think explains Santiagueños failure to appreciate lamb, which is even less popular than horse meat?


  8. Jim I ate like Pilar charqui but never eat horse meat!! gloria


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