Monday, August 2, 2010

Curanto: Chiloé’s ancient “clambake”

By 6,000 years ago, and perhaps as early as 10,000 BP[1] (before present) Chiloé families did something they still do today; wait for the curanto to be ready. Curanto, a pit oven and the meal of shellfish and other foods cooked in it, is amog the most caracteristic and certainly the oldest dish in the cuisine of Chiloé, the large island of south central Chile. In fact, Chiloé’s curanto may be the oldest “recipe” that still graces the world’s tables—at least if we ignore such generic things as “roast meat.”[2]

The evidence is the “feature” (archaeologese for a non-movable artifact) below:  a 6,000 year old curanto from the archaeological site of Puente Quilo on the north coast, west of the city of Ancud (map).   It was found in a shell mound along with the remains of many of the inhabitants’ meals:  “bones of nutria, sea lions, sea birds, fish and whale, as well as hooves of the southern pudú [a small species of deer].  And of course, many remains of shells of scallops, snails, Chilean abalone, surf clams, mussels, hard shell clams, and razor clams.” [3] 

Curanto, is from kurantu meaning “stony ground”[4] in the Mapuche language, but the early curantos were made thousands of years before   Mapuche speakers, the agricultural Huilliche, arrived in Chiloé.  Curantos originated with an earlier hunting, fishing and gathering culture, ancestral to the Chono, the canoe Indians of the archipelago south of Chiloé.

Making curanto

Vicente Pérez Rosales’, a Chilean politician, merchant, miner, diplomat and organizer of German colonization of Chile, described (with evident distaste) a curanto as he observed it, probably in the 1850s.

[Fish] and those inexhaustible banks of exquisite shellfish of all types that the low tides expose were, along with potatoes and fava beans, the larder that sustained [the Chilotes].  Even the means of preparing those delicacies was purely Indian, from the time of the conquest.  In a hole in the ground full of stones heated by a fire are placed shellfish, fish, meat (if there is any), cheese, and potatoes, and without delay, everything is covered with monstrous pangui [fern] leaves, and finished by covering with sod and earth to keep the steam from escaping.  A quarter of an hour later, one saw the whole family, with their obligatory escort of dogs and pigs, surround the smoky horn of plenty in which each one put his hand and ate, sucking his finger’s, until satisfied.[5]

Pérez’s distaste is not shared by Chilean newspaper editor and publisher, Recaredo S. Tornero who, writing in the 1870s, provides a more sympathetic description:

Nalca, the plant used to seal the curanto.
[Curanto] is a type of banquet or feast that they celebrate in the fresh air, always at the edge of the beach, and very frequently since there is never a lack of pretext: now a wedding, a baptism, a sick person now out of danger, a good harvest, finishing a house, a happy return from the mountains, or simply the desire to have a good time.  The curanto is prepared as follows:  They select a site convenient to the edge of a pebbly beach and there they dig a hole a yard deep and equally wide and light a violent fire in the bottom.  When the sides of the pit are well heated, it is a sign that it is ready to receive the infinite variety of foods that make up the curanto: potatoes, ham, pork, lamb, and all kinds of shellfish, mainly clams, of which there are an abundance, requiring no more work to obtain than scratching around in the sand.  Then they cover the bottom and sides of the pit with leaves of fern or nalca, and continue adding the foods mentioned above in layers, separated one from another and with plenty of seasonings, until the pit is completely full.  Then it is covered with another layer of rocks and while the delicious curanto cooks, the guests dance the famous seguidilla, a kind of resbalosa [folk dance, literally “slippery”] for two couples, accompanied by harp and guitars.  It seems unnecessary to add that during all this potato aguardiente [liquor] and apple chicha [hard cider] preside over the entire fiesta.[6]

 A curanto and spit roasted lamb for summer tourists in front of the market in Ancud, .

So…. ready to make a curanto?   Here is a modern recipe, from the cookbook Indigenous Culture and Food in Chile, p. 49):

If a curanto for 30 seems a bit much, you can make polmay, curanto in a pot, using cabbage leaves instead of nalca.  And an advantage is that the good juices are retained, instead of going into the ground. Click here for a recipe, including milcaos and chaples (potato breads).

Below is polmay from Camila’s kitchen in Castro, with a mug of the broth and a cup of wine. The darker colored patty is milcalo and the light one is a chapale.

Other curantos

Just when and where the practice of cooking in a pit with heated stones began, and how many times it was independently invented, is unclear, but the Chilotes were in good company.  Alston V. Thoms, a Texas A&M archeologist who studies such things, tells us that the earliest European curanto-like finds (he calls them “cook-stone features”) date to the late Aurignacian (32–33,000 BP) in France. “They tended to be basin shaped, about 1.5 m in diameter, and filled with heat-fractured river cobbles.”  Similar features are found on all continents, but their purpose is seldom clear.[7] The best know recent (geologically speaking, i.e. with in the last 10,000 years or so) curantos are found in the Americas and in Polynesia.

The earliest found in North American date to around 10,500 BP and by around 9,000 BP they are common in the US Pacific North West, South East and North East where they were used to bake tubers and bulbs of wild plants.  In Mexico and the South West US, they were associated with the roasting of sugary agave hearts; a practice which continues today, but now as the first step in making mescal, the famed Mexican liquor.

An agave curanto in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Barbacoa de hoyo.  photo: Andres Juarez

The Mexican barbacoa (above) is also a curanto, in which beef, lamb or goat is cooked in a pit, often in or over a large pot to catch the juices.  I learned how make barbacoa from Mexican friends in Southern California and successfully cooked several goats, 25 lbs of chuck roast, and a whole pig this way.  (And unsuccessfully undercooked one goat when there wasn't enough wood; we finished it in the oven.)  Here’s my recipe if you’re interested.

In Yucatan the Maya curanto is called a pib, from which emerges the famous cochinita pibil, pig from the earth oven, right. 

Cochinita pipil.  Photo: ¿Que Guiso Hoy?

And every South American region seems to have one too. The Inca version is the pachamanarca (from the Quechan for “earthen pot”) of Peru, Ecuador, and NW  Argentina; Bolivia’s is the wathiya or wajaña; and Brazil and Paraguay have the paparuto.

Curantos are also found throughout the Polynesian islands and the eastern Pacific and include: the Hawaiian  imu;  the Samoan and Easter Island umu; Tahiti’s ahima'a; the Maori hangi; and the mumu from Papua New Guinea.

Easter Island umu Photo:  suenson-taylors

But back to Chile’s curanto:  it inspired this song.  To hear a bit of it, follow this link and click on música.

[1] Curumilla Sotomayor, Sara.  2006 ¡Sorprendente Hallazgo Arqueológico! La Estrella () Jueves, 16 Febrero 2006, Pgs. A-6-7. On line at (Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.)
[2] I thought that bread might be older, but the oldest evidence dates to 3,300 BC (5,300 BP). See “Archeologists Dig Into Bread's Prehistory” Los Angeles Times, June 14, 1998.  On line at
[3] Unidad IV: Sitio Arqueológico De Puente Quilo,  Pasado y Presente en el Bordemar.  Medio Ambiente y Cultura. Museo Regional De Ancud. On line at This is also the source for the photo and drawing.
[4] Another translation is “rocks heated by the sun”
[5] Pérez Rosalez, Vicente. 1886 Recuerdos del pasado : 1814-1860. Santiago de Chile : Impr. Gutenberg.  P. 383.  On line at
[6] Tornero, Recaredo S.  1872.  Chile Ilustrado. Valparaiso:  Librerian I Ajencias del Mercurio.  On line at
[7]Thoms, Alson V. 2009. Rocks of ages: propagation of hot-rock cookery in western North America Journal of Archaeological Science. 36(3):573-591


  1. This blog is amazing! Thanks for writing this stuff up. =) I just started following you as I am interested in learning more about Chilean food customs and such being that I'm half Chilean.

  2. Thanks, Kit. I'm glad you are finding it interesting.


  3. Another plates I have never had... are you drinking vino navegado para pasar el frío?

  4. I asked my wife about "vino navegado." (Mulled wine) Since I didn't know what it was, I haven't been drinking it, but lo hacemos mañana. And debes comer curanto la proxima ves que vuelves a Chile.


  5. Thanks Jim for this blog, I've been following it for a while and it's amazing.
    Lot of memorier of my dear country come out every time I read it....
    I am a Chilean living in California

  6. Gracias, Hugo. Chile and California have a great deal in common, but only Chile has curanto!

    Best wishes - Jim

  7. excellent post! I'm headed to Chiloe in a few weeks after years of dreaming about it, but it looks like curanto made traditionally is hard to come by if there's not a festival or holiday. I will still enjoy my polmay and try erizos for the first time!


  8. Thanks, Isabel. Maybe someone will have a public curanto for the Independence Day celebrations, but if not you can surely find polmay. And take a raincoat. :-)


  9. ...u guyz r weird tokin bout chile instead of tokin bbout clambake..smh =/

    1. Thanks for the cogent comment, Anonymous.

      And here's a translation. "clambake": The female corollary to the term sausagefest; a bar or club where the crowd is surprisingly almost exclusively female, especially when you are looking to meet men. (Urban Dictionary.) "smh": Shaking my head. (


Sorry, no more anonymous posts. I was getting too much spam. Email me (see my profile) if you would like to comment and have no account. Jim