Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Feasting with the Enemy: 17th Century Mapuche food

“….in this gay entertainment, they had us go first to supper of some dishes cooked in their style: little cakes, plates of potatoes, packages of corn and beans. They also served many spits of fat meat of the richest taste, brought back from the fire by a boy, spilling the juice all around, bringing them to each one so that he could cut by his hand the meat he thought richest and best roasted. They returned them to the fire and brought others, passing them among all present. The same was done with the other spits of capons, partridge hens and sausages. It was our luck that we ate and drank with great pleasure, relieved of the fast that we suffered in the arduous trip, and cheering the spirits with the repetition of various liquors.” Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, El Cautiverio Feliz, 1673, my translation)
Thus the 22 year old, Chilean-born Spanish soldier, Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, passed an evening in 1629 dining with his captor, the Mapuche chief, Maulicán. He had been captured at the Battle of Cangrejeras, during the War of Aranco (1550-1656), in which the Mapuche, the indigenous people of central Chile, eventually drove the Spanish out of Chile south the Rio Bío Bío. In 1673, 44 years after his six-month (nine-month?) captivity, he wrote The Happy Captivity, and Individual Reason for the Expanded Wars of the Kingdom of Chile (El Cautiverio feliz y razón individual de las guerras dilatadas del reino de Chile), one of the most reliable descriptions of Mapuche culture during this period.
El Malón (The Raid) by Mauricio Rugendas. 1802-1858
Francisco was evidently something of a gourmand; he wrote frequently about his food and drink, providing a great resource for those interested in Chilean food history. His account suggests, unremarkably, that the staple foods of the Mapuche were maize, potatoes and beans.

Maize (“corn” to North Americans) seems to have been prepared mainly as humitas and mote. On various occasions he spoke of eating “bollos de maíz,” (maize rolls); packages of corn and beans” (envoltorios de maíz y porotos); “rolls of corn and beans, which are the ordinary bread of the people” (bollos de maíz y porotos, que es el ordinario pan de aquella gente); “rolls of maize and beans mixed with the seed… of the “madi;” (bollos de porotos y maíz mezclados con la semilla…. que es el «madi»); “well made tamales of corn and beans in place of bread” (tamales muy bien hechos de maíz y porotos en lugar de pan) and “maize breads which they call umitas and we call tamales” (panes de maíz que llaman «umintas» y nosotros tamales).
Assuming that Francisco was speaking of humitas in each of these entries, they often contained beans, and occasionally seeds of “madi,” or melosa (Madia sativa), cultivated by the Mapuche and used as an oil seed into the 19th century. Tamales of maize mixed with beans occur in various areas of Mexico, and quinoa seed tamales are made in Peru, but neither seem to be party of today’s Chilean kitchen.
Flower of Madi (Madia sativa)
Mote, or hominy (nixtamal or pozole in Mexico), is the other main way that maize was prepared. In this widespread Amerindian technique, maize is boiled in alkaline water, made by adding lime or ashes. This makes the kernels swell and the clear seed coat or hull (pericarp) comes off (and the nutritional value is substantially increased 1 ). The maize is then rinsed several times, and may be ground into dough for making tortillas or tamales, cooked further in soups, or dried. The Mapuche holding Núñez de Pineda gave him, on various occasions, “a plate of mote,” “mote with beans,” and “mote with many achupallas 2 and herbs of the fields that give a good taste to their dishes.” They do not seem to have ground mote into a dough for tamales or tortillas.

Mote de maiz

At least once he was also given a plate of mote de cebada (barley), suggesting that the Mapuche had adapted the mote process to other grains. In today’s Chile, maize mote has almost disappeared, while wheat kernels treated the same way, and simply called mote, have become part of the national cuisine.

In addition to maize, potatoes and beans, Francisco mentions several breads, including tortillas and empanadas. The tortillas were probably not the Amerindian corn tortillas, but something like the tortillas de rescoldos, little breads of wheat flour and lard cooked in the embers, still a common item in Mapuche and rural Chilean cooking. Empanadas, stuffed pastries of Spanish origin, had also entered the Mapuche cuisine by this time.

In addition to humitas and mote, toasted flour and “toasted corn flour mixed with quinoa and madi” are mentioned. These Mapuche grain products, similar to Mexican pinole, are mixed with water and sugar or honey (when available) to make a refreshing drink, and are also prepared as a soup.
Francisco also mentions fried foods, another borrowing from the Creole kitchen, as frying was previously unknown:
The settlement was very large and spacious with three well supplied cooking fires with spits and skillets where they fried buñuelos  and rosquillas and sopaipillas de huevos [types of pastries] and fresh fish.
Meats mentioned in the Happy Captive include beef, mutton, “sheep of the land” (llama or vicuna), pork, sausages, blood sausage, jerky, bacon, horse meat ("when nothing better was available"), chickens, capons, and partridges (probably the Chilean Tinamou, Nothoprocta perdicaria). Prepared dishes and stews included chicken stew “of their style including vegetables such as potatoes and beans” and, pepitorias (chicken stew thickened with eggs), “cazuela (boiled dinner) so well prepared and seasoned that our cooks could not do better,” fish stews, shellfish stews, and “omelets (tortillas) of eggs with ample honey.”

Perdiz Chilena or Chilean Tinamou, Nothoprocta perdicaria).

Finally, there was chicha, the “beer” of the Mapuche, mentioned dozens of times in the text as: “chicha of strawberries, which is the of the most pleasant that they drink,” “chicha of good breeding,” “chicha of dried strawberries, which is the best they drink,” “bitter chicha of apples,” and “chicha with a “mari mari,” whatever that may be. Surprisingly, maize or wheat muday, today’s Mapuche chicha, is not mentioned, though perhaps it was understood when Francisco simply said “chicha.”

The importance of chicha to Mapuche feasting is evident in this passage:
To the chiefs they gave splendid food, various dishes of fish, shellfish, fowl, partridges, bacon, sausages, pastries, buñuelos, tomatoes, rolls of beans and maize, and other things, providing for each band according to the people it contained, one hundred or two hundred measures of chicha, because more commonly only twenty or thirty bands came together for ordinary drinking parties and feasts, but in this one there were more than fifty, with a daily consumption of more than four thousand jugs of chicha. A that was not a lot, because there were twelve or fourteen thousand souls at that feast, Indian men and women, girls [chinas] and boys.3
[For more on Mapuche food, see Mapuche Food: Ethno tourism/Ethno gastronomy]

1 Maize in human nutrition, Food And Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations, Rome, 1992
Achupallas, Quechan for a plant with a fruit “with fragrant pulp used to make a refreshing drink and also in the preparation of diverse dishes, especially salads, probably Puya chilensis.
3“a los caciques les daban de comer espléndidamente, varios guisados de pescados, mariscos, aves, perdices, tocino, longanizas, pasteles, buñuelos, tomates, bollos de porotos y maíces y otras cosas, poniendo a cada parcialidad, conforme la gente que tenía, ciento o doscientas cántaras de chicha, porque cuando más se suelen juntar en ordinarias borracheras y festejos veinte o treinta, parcialidades, y en ésta se juntaron más de cincuenta, con lo que el gasto que había cada día de chicha era de más de cuatro mil botijas. Y no era mucho para más de doce o catorce mil almas que se hallaron a aquel festejo, indios, indias, chinas y muchachos.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Humitas : Chilean Tamales

Among the indigenous foods that have enriched the cuisine of the Spanish creoles, none exceed the umitas, neither for their exquisite taste, nor for the antiquity of their origin.  Zorobabel Rodriguez (Dicionary de Chilinesmos, Santiago, 1875; all translations mine.)  

This time of year, mid February, my wife wants humitas, Chilean tamales seasoned with sweet basil. We usually buy ours at the local plaza, where beginning in late January when the corn reaches the milk stage, a vendor shows up around 12:30 with a cooler full of hot humitas and remains until he sells out.

One and a half, or two if you have a big appetite, along with ensalada chilena (tomatoes and onions with a bit of green chili), makes a great meal.

Tamales seem to be part of the cuisine of every maize-growing Amerindian culture, but while the Mexicans have hundreds of varieties (perhaps thousands), Chile, at the southern extreme of the continent and of maize cultures, has one: although one of the best.   An early account describes them as follows:
The Indian women grind the corn, by the force of their arms, on a concave stone with round stone held in both hands, like painters grind their colors; and adding water little by little while grinding, a paste-like dough is formed, and they take a little of the paste and wrap it in the leaf of an herb that they have for this purpose, or in an leaf of the same corn, or something similar, and placing it in the coals it roasts and hardens and turns out like white bread, and makes its crust by disuse [?--i hace su corteza por desuso], and inside the bun the crumb is somewhat more tender than the crust; and make haste to eat it, because when cold it doesn’t have such a good flavor nor is it as good to chew, because it is dry and rough. These buns are also boiled, but don’t have such a good flavor; and after being boiled or roasted this bread will not keep but a few days and after four or five days it becomes soggy and not good to eat. (Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, 1535, quoted in Zorobabel Rodriguez, Dicionary de Chilinesmos, Santiago, 1875)
By the 18th century, the indigenous recipe seems to have changed slightly with the addition of lard and sugar, as the Mapuche and Spanish kitchens experienced a mutual acculturation:
The Indians, who cultivate eight or nine varieties of [maize] make various foods from it, especially preferring one that they call uminta which is made from fresh tender maize ground between two smooth stones… From this preparation comes a milky dough which they season mainly with fat, salt or sugar, and divided into many small pieces, wrap in the most tender leaves of the maize ears and cook in boiling water in order to eat them. (Juan Ignacio Molina, 1776 Compendio de la Historia Geográfica, Natural y Civil del Reyno de Chile and evidently "borrowed" from Gómez de Vidaurre.)

Today’s humitas are much the same, but with the addition of a little onion and sweet basil. No meat, no sauce; just the slightly sweet taste of fresh field corn, just past the milk stage, cut from the cob and ground, seasoned and boiled in the husk. And on the side, ensalada chilena, and perhaps crisp green beans, lightly dressed with oil.

The name humita, comes from hummita or jumint'a in Quechua, the language of the Inca (and millions of 21st century Peruvians). Throughout the Andes, from Ecuador to Chile, humitas of various types are made, usually with fresh, rather than dried, corn. Fresh maize, cut from the cob and ground, is also the basis of the Mexican tamal de elote, but the use of sweet basil as a seasoning seems particularly Chilean. Although basil is an old world herb of Iranian or Indian origin, it is widely used in Chilean cooking with Mapuche origins. The Mapuche, the indigenous people of central Chile, were (and many are) agriculturalists, planting the Andean trilogy of corn, beans and potatoes, plus dozens of other native crops, and whatever old world domesticates they liked and that grew well in Chile’s climates. But I haven’t learned how or when basil became popular among the Mapuche.

The corn or choclo (from the Quechua chujllu) for humitas is very large, and is a starchy rather than a sweet corn, like the “field corn” used for animal feeds and corn meal. When cooked the starch thickens, producing the familiar tamale texture. Sweet corn prepared in the same fashion remains runny unless corn meal is added for thickening. 

The modern Chilean recipe for Humitas, from the classic chilean cookbok, La Gran Cocina Chilena (8th Edition, 2000) is as follows:
8 ears of corn (choclos humeros)
1 sprig of sweet basil
1 teaspoon of paprika (ají de color) 
 1 onion 
1/8 kg (1/2 cup) lard 
1 cube of chicken bullion 
Salt and pepper 
Mince the onion and sauté in the lard with the paprika. Add the bullion cube dissolved in two teaspoons of water. Cut the corn from the cob and grind or process in food processor with the basil. In a large bowl mix the ground corn and sautéed onion, and season with salt, pepper, sugar and paprika. If you want the humitas to be light colored, add milk. Overlap two corn shucks and place some of the mixture in the center. Fold the shucks over to form a package and tie with string or with thin strips of corn shuck. Boil in abundant salted water for approximately 30 minutes. Serve with ensalad chilena.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

First Impressions

Three weeks after retiring from a Midwestern US university I found myself in Santiago, enthusiastic about being in Chile, single, and looking forward to several months of travel, food and wine. Four years later I again find myself in Santiago, enthusiastic about living in Chile, married to a Chilena, and looking forward to more travel, food and wine… and to writing a little about what I’m learning.

My first memorable meal in Chile, according to my journal, came on my third day here:

The restaurant, Mariscadas de ¨Somewhere¨ was solidly middle class, nicely decorated, with girl-next-door waitresses, white table cloths, and tables a little closer than ideal, but “nice.” The clientele was young and not-so-young couples, all with cell phones which rang during dinner, all dressed casually--women in pants, men in jeans or kakis and knit shirts or thereabouts. After a brief look at the menu, I told the waitress, a girl in her 20s, that I was an ignorant foreigner and would need help ordering. The menu had two main sections, first courses and main courses, each consisting on a list of fish or shell fish followed by prices. The appetizers were mostly shellfish, and the entrees were mostly fin fish, but not much more was clear. I recognized about half the shell fish on the appetizers page: clams, oysters, scallops, mussels, some other kind of mussels, more clams, plus a assortments of things I didn’t recognize at all…. Including, it turned out, urchins, limpets, and ???? I asked about the first item and she drew urchins on the back of the napkin…. Pretty good, I thought. The second item on the list was mariscada, which I was told was a mixture, so I ordered that. For a main course, I ordered congrio, conger eel, one of the most common and favorite fish hereabouts, plus a half bottle of sauvignon blanc. I thought it was a good sign when she brought French rolls, butter, aji (Chilean Spanish for chile or salsa [actually pebre¸ about which more will be forthcoming] ) and a small bottle (like in a spice rack) of lemon juice. This was followed by the mariscada, an oblong bowl-plate like you might expect to be served lasagna in well filled with assorted sea creatures. The bottom layer seemed to be raw clams and oysters, and above were cold steamed mussels of two or more types, octopus, crab claw meat, crab body meat, clams about the size of cat tongues, red stuff that could only have been sea urchin guts, etc., etc. Plus sea weed. And good. All very oceanic and cold and sharp and clean. Having finished that, I was well along toward full, but then came the fish.

On the menu it was listed as ¨fish with side dishes¨, and the sides turned out to be a choice of rice, mashed potatoes (puré), or various salads, the first of which was listed simply as ensaslada Chileña--tomatoes, onions and parsley. I chose that. The fish was a grapefruit-sized chunk from the creature’s middle, about 3 inches of torso, including the two flaps of meat and skin that surrounded the innards—fried. Battered and fried. Alone on the plate, battered and fried, big as a softball. Not a culinary marvel. The fish, stripped of its slightly greasy coating, was good, naturally good, perfectly cooked, innocent of seasoning or sauce, though the lemon juice helped. The salad was ample for two (people probably order different sides and split them, I had only the one). Ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced onions and a medium sprinkle of parsley. Dressing was up to the diner, from a salt shaker, an oil bottle and the lemon juice. No pepper. (Whoever introduces the waiter-propelled pepper grinder to Chile will become rich.) Big meal; I ate about half…. And, as you may have guessed, finished the wine. Coffee (expres doble) followed, total price about $20 US including tip.

Congrio negro (credit)

A good meal, and interesting. Very familiar  (seafood cocktail, fried fish, salad), but with a lot of differences.The moderately spicy pebre accompanying the bread. No obvious seasonings on the fish, mariscada, or salad; salt but no pepper on the table; clear oil (not olive). The fish served alone on the plate, perfectly cooked, beneath the slightly greasy batter.