Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Eating Piñones

So what turned up in the Santa Isabel supermarket last week? Piñones.

In spite of having only the vaguest knowledge of what they were or exactly what I would do with them I bought some (@ 900 CLP a kg./ $.75 a lb.).

Now, after a few hours on the internet and in the kitchen, I know a bit more. In spite of their name, which translates as “pine nut,” they are not the seeds of a pine tree, but of the pehuén or monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), the national tree of Chile.

And subject of a poem by Pablo Neruda, Oda a la Araucanía Araucana.

                        Pehuén trees near the Chilean-Argentinean border east of Temuco.

Piñones are an important wild food of the Mapuche, and especially of the Pehuenche (Pehuén + che/people), the Mapuche who live in the Andes on both sides of the border with Argentina, whose name indicates the importance of this resource.

According to the Museum of Patagonia website article on “The Pehuenche, People of the araucarias:”
Collection of piñones takes place from March to May. The seed pods are knocked down with long poles or by climbing the tree clad in protective leather. The Pehuenches of the Chilean side of the Andes wait until the ripe piñones fall spontaneously; believing that to do otherwise is offensive to the spirit owners of the araucarias. The piñones can be eaten raw (if very ripe), toasted or boiled. Various types of flour for bread can be made, using a flat milling stone. The drink CHAVID is made by allowing the boiled piñones to ferment for three or four days in special containers of wood or pottery. To keep piñones they are threaded into long chains called MENKEÑ and allowed to dry. The storage pits DOLLINKO have a drainage system that allows storage of 400 to 500 kg. of clean piñones for 3 or 4 years. They put hot stones in the pit and above them the piñones topped with a lattice of canes and covered with earth. (My translation)

Pehuenche legend says that the pehuén is sacred and its seeds were once thought to be poison,

...and they venerated it, praying in is shade, offering gifts: meat, blood, smoke and even speaking to it, confessing their bad acts. Then, during a time of great scarcity and hunger, when children and old people were dying, the young men went far away searching for food, and they returned with empty hands, thinking that god did not hear the clamor of his people dying of hunger. But Nguenechén had not abandoned them, and when a young man was returning discouraged, he encountered an old man with a long white beard.
“What are you looking for,” he asked.
“Food for my tribal brothers who are dying of hunger; I have fond nothing.”
“And so many piñones on the ground under the pehuéns; aren’t they eatable?”
“The fruits of the sacred tree are poison, grandfather” answered the youth.
“Son, from now on you have them as food as a gift Nguenechén. Boiled so that they soften, or toasted by the fire, you have a delicious dish. Collect them well, store then underground, and you have food for the whole winter.”
Having said this, the old man disappeared.
From then on, there was no famine and great quantities of piñones were harvested and stored underground where they kept fresh for a long time.
Every day, upon waking, with a piñon or a branch of pehuén in hand, they pray looking at the sun: "To you we owe our life, and we beg of you, the great one, our father, that you don’t let the pehuenes die. They should increase as our descendants increase, whose lives belong to you as do the sacred trees.” [1]

Piñones are 1.5 to 2 inches long, and 200 to 300 make a kilogram. While no complete nutritional analysis is available, “seeds are composed of starch (64%), dietary fibre (25%), total sugar (7%) and very low concentrations of phenolic compounds, lipids, proteins and crude fibre.”[2] This makes them much lower in fats and proteins (and calories) than pine nuts and nutritionally similar to chestnuts.  (Note: some of the starch may not be easily digestible... don't eat them all the first day.)

They are also used in similar ways, roasted, boiled or milled into flower for breads and for porridge. Like chestnuts, piñones may be peeled raw (left) or after toasting or boiling. The shells are tough and a little leathery, and open more easily if cut with a knife.

I toasted mine in a dry skillet for about 30 minutes, then peeled them and tossed them with oil, salt and the Mapuche condiment merkén (powered smoked chili with ground coriander seeds). They are not crisp and crunchy, but firm, a little like an untoasted almond. Unseasoned, they are slightly bland but with an interesting nutlike flavor.

There are said to be as many recipes for piñones as there are Mapuches, but here are a couple that I want to try.

Mapuche Piñones soup (Southern Argentina) by Sandra Román/ MARIELAJ

100 gm piñones
½ onion
½ carrot
1 green onion
Chopped cilantro, to taste
Salt, pepper and merkén(or powdered chili) to taste
Pork fat, or lard
Cut the pork fat in small pieces and render, saving the cracklings. Dice the onions, green onion and carrot. Sauté the onions, green onion and carrot in the fat (or lard). Add the cracklings, the piñones, and the broth and season to taste. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Serve sprinkled with cilantro.
Piñon Croquets with Merkén
500 gm. piñones
½ onion
1 clove garlic
½ green pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
½ cup of dry bread crumbs
2 eggs
2 tablespoons of merkén (or other mild to medium powered chili if unavailable)
Salt and pepper
Cook the piñones in salted water for 1 hour. Then peel them and grind into flour (I’d try a food processor.) Dice the onion, green pepper and garlic. Sauté the onion and garlic, then add the green pepper. Add the sautéed vegetables, the eggs, parsley, bread crumbs and the merkén to the ground piñones. Season with salt and pepper. Form croquets and fry in deep fat at 350°F.
For more on Mapuche foods see Mapuche Food:  Ethno Tourism/Ethno Gastronomy 
[1] Taringa! Intelegencia colectiva, Araucaria Araucana (Pehuen) on line at http://www.taringa.net/posts/info/1791412/ my translation
[2] Characterization of piñon seed (Araucaria araucana (Mol) K. Koch) and the isolated starch from the seed. Carolina Henríquez et al. Food Chemistry, Volume 107, Issue 2, 15 March 2008, Pages 592-601 on line at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T6R-4PGPVXF-3&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=feaff329eb094947f8a7329f427c86d3

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Eating Paleo-Chilean: Food at Monte Verde

The oldest menu in the Americas, dating to 14,000 years ago, comes from Monte Verde, a southern Chilean archaeological site, famous among anthropologists, although little known among the public. Near Puerto Mott, Monte Verde (red area on map), provides the oldest widely accepted evidence[i] of human settlement in the Americas, including the remains of plants and a animas used as food.

click map to enlarge

The site, discovered in 1975 and excavated beginning in 1977, is not only the oldest in the Americas, but it is so old and so far south that it virtually eliminates the long held theory that the first Americans were Clovis big game hunters. The Clovis people, or their immediate ancestors, are thought to have crossed from Siberia when Pleistocene sea levels were low, following the mammoths and bison that were their prey. Then, as the glaciers retreated after 12,000 years ago, they moved south through an ice-free corridor, leaving evidence of their passing at mammoth kill sites across North America, such as their name-sake site near Clovis, New Mexico. But Monte Verde, earlier than any Clovis site and 5000 miles south, makes it certain that the first Americans came earlier, perhaps much earlier; though how and when remain unknown.

Not only is Monte Verde remarkable in its location and age, opening a new chapter in our understanding of American prehistory, it is also remarkable for the organic materials—including foods—found on the site, preserved because the site was rapidly covered by water-born silt and then by a layer of peat, producing an oxygen-poor environment that largely prevented decomposition.

…research recovered wood tent remains, hut foundations and floors, hearths and braziers, wooden lances, mortars and digging sticks, medicinal and edible plants, animal bones, hide and soft tissue, human footprints, numerous stone tools, and other materials demonstrating human occupation.[ii]
Reconstruction of the community of Monte Verde

The Menu

Contrasting with the image of the Clovis hunters, thought to have focused largely on mammoths, the evidence at Monte Verde suggests that the 20 to 30 inhabitants were harvesting a broad spectrum of wild plant foods from many local micro-environments, much like more recent hunters and gatherers. These included the Pacific beaches to the west and the large bay to the east, which provided 9 species of seaweed; freshwater marshes, which provided 15 species of aquatic plants; and the inland forests and wetlands which provided 46 other plant species, including wild potatoes, a “wide variety of edible seeds, stalks, leaves, fruits, nuts, berries and roots,” plus freshwater mollusks and meat from an extinct species of llamas and the mastodon-like gomphothere (Cuvieronicus sensu).

Among the seaweeds is luche (
Porphyra spp. left), known as nori to the Japanese who use it to wrap sushi, and as “laver” to the Irish. Today in Chile is it steamed, or dried in a slow oven until crisp, then crumbled over rice, pasta, or salads, or used as an ingredient in empanadas, or stews.[iii]

Another seaweed, cochayuyo (Durvillaea antarctica, “bull kelp”) found at Monte Verde is even more widely eaten in Chile, and is regularly available at fish markets. It is prepared by soaking overnight and then boiling in water with a little vinegar. It is then scraped with a knife, and cut into pieces for adding to stews as a complement to or replacement for meat.[iv]

Wild potatoes (Solanum maglia) were also among the plant remains found at Monte Verde—making them the earliest potatoes, wild or cultivated, on record. Modern plants of this species, which produces small tubers seldom more than1.5 inches in diameter, prefer “low, humid, shaded areas near the edges of bogs and swamps” in south central Chile. The Mapuche, indigenous people of the area, know this potato as malla, and wrere reported to gather and eat them into the 20th century.[v]

Compared to the rich plant resources, relatively few animal remains were found at Monte Verde: freshwater mollusk shells, one scapula from a palaeolama, and meat, hide fragments and bones (mainly ribs) from seven elephant like “gomphothere” (Cuvieronicus sensu), which stood 8 to 9 feet tall.

"Gray Fossil Gomphothere detail" © by Karen Carr

Archaeologist Tom Dillehay suggests that these gomphothere bones are from animals killed or scavenged at a distance, where most of the heavy bones would have been left. No weapons that seem suitable for hunting elephants have been found on the site; only a 5 foot pointed wooden lance, bolo stones (tied to cords and thrown at smaller game), round stones probably for throwing in slings, and a bone fragment that may have been a lance blade. But finding the remains of seven individual gomphotheres suggests that they were not an especially rare aspect of diet, unlikely if they resulted only from scavenging.

[i] To be widely accepted, an early archaeological site must have a consistent sequence of C14 dates, artifacts of unquestionably human manufacture, and plant or animal remains consistent with its dating. Monte Verde II has all of these. See Archaeology: Monte Verde: Blessed But Not Confirmed. Gibbons. Science 28 February 1997: 1256
[ii] Monte Verde: Seaweed, Food, Medicine, and the Peopling of South America. Tom D. Dillehay, et al. Science 320, 784. May 9, 2008
[iii] Porphyra columbina, Algas marinas, Museo virtual de historia natural Patagónica, Universidad nacional de la Patagonia, San Juan Bosco On line at http://www.unp.edu.ar/museovirtual/Algasmarinas/receta1.htm
[iv] Durvillaea Antarctica, at the source above
[v] Potato remains from a late pleistocene settlement in south central Chile. Donald Ugent, Tom Dillehay, and Carlos Ramirez. Economic Botany 41(1):17 Jan. 1987.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tunas and Nopales: Eating Cactus

This week my wife came in with a dozen or so tunas, cactus pears, bought from a street vender—1000 pesos ($1.70) a bag—on the way home from work.

Coming from a country in which tunas are little more than a curiosity, I was surprised to discover their popularity in Chile, and as I did a little reading, throughout the Mediterranean as well.

 And deservedly so. Once the thick and potentially spiny skin is removed, the fruit is refreshing, juicy, sweet and a little acid, with a taste slightly reminiscent of a honeydew melon. There are a lot of small seeds, but practiced tuna eaters swallow them along with the pulp.

Tunas (from the Taíno of Haiti) are the fruits of many species of nopal (from the Aztec language Nahualt) or Opuntia. They are native to the Americas from the northern plains, where Lewis and Clark found the spiny plants a great hindrance, to Patagonia, where Charles Darwin encountered Opuntia darwinii. Many species produce succulent fruits important to American Indian diets, as described by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca. He landed in Florida in 1528, was attacked by Indians, shipwrecked, made a slave, and eventually, over the course of eight years, walked from the Texas coast back to Spanish territory in NW Mexico. Speaking of Texas Indians, he wrote:
They are a very merry people, and even when famished do not cease to dance and celebrate their feasts and ceremonials. Their best times are when "tunas" (prickly pears) are ripe, because then they have plenty to eat and spend the time in dancing and eating day and night. As long as these tunas last they squeeze and open them and set them to dry. When dried they are put in baskets like figs and kept to be eaten on the way. The peelings they grind and pulverize.
During all the time we ate tunas we felt thirsty. To allay our thirst we drank the juice of the fruit, pouring it first into a pit which we dug in the soil, and when that was full we drank to satisfaction. The Indians do it in that way, out of lack of vessels. The juice is sweet and has the color of must. There are many kinds of tunas, and some very good ones, although to me all tasted well alike, hunger never leaving me time to select, or stop to think which ones were better. [i]
Further west, in Arizona and Northern Sonora, the Tohono O'odham (Papago) and Pima made extensive use of opuntia fruit as well as:
Saguaro (Cereus giganteus, Engelm.) [the] fruit [of which] was highly prized, particularly for making an intoxicating beverage, especially as a prelude to a war expedition. Its harvest was so important that the Pima started their new year count with it. The fruit was eaten fresh and was also dried in balls some 15 cm. in diameter. The juice was extracted from both fresh and dried fruit by boiling all day. The residue is ground to a paste on the metate and eaten without further preparation. The juice makes a thick syrup which may be stored in jars sealed with clay. When diluted and allowed to ferment, it makes a sweetish intoxicating drink.[ii]

But the real center was, and is, Mexico. Perhaps as early as 12,000 years ago and clearly 9,000 BP (before present) there is evidence (remains were found in human coprolites, AKA dry turds) that tunas were being eaten and domestication may have begun.[iii] Their importance is indicated by their place in the Aztec origin myth, represented on the Mexican coat of arms. The gods indicated the future site of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital and today’s Mexico City, by showing them an eagle perched on a prickly pear.

From Mexico, the domesticated Opuntia ficus-indica spread throughout Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, where the Spanish first encountered it, and perhaps to South America as well; though the latter is open to question.

The nopal pictured on a pre-Columbian Nasca vase from Peru may or may not have been the domesticated variety from Mexico.

Shortly after their discovery nopales were introduced to Spain, probably by Columbus’ second voyage in 1594, where they were called Higos de la India, or India figs, and from there they were widely dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin and eventually into arid regions throughout the world. Their early spread is attributed to transportation by sailors, who found the flesh of the noplaitos or pads a specific against scurvy, and later as forage for cattle in dry regions of Australia and South Africa.

Tunas in a Market in Mexico

Today they are commercially cultivated in not only in Mexico, where there are an estimated 70,000 hectares, but also in Algeria, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Israel, Italy, Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia, and the United States. [iv]

Harvesting tunas and nopales in the work of Chicana

Here in Chile, where an estimated 1,200 hectares produce 9,000 tons a year, the fruit is prized, but the flesh of the pads, the nopalitos, seems not to be eaten—or at least I have found no evidence to the contrary. That’s unfortunate, because they are an attractive vegetable, especially as prepared in Mexican salads.


                                                                                                     Nopales salad

[i] The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca (1542) Translated by Fanny Bandelier (1905) online at http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/one/cabeza.htm
[ii] Material Culture of the Pima, Papago, and Western Apache, With Suggestions for Museum Displays, Dr. Ralph L. Beals, (1934) U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Field Division of Education, Berkeley, California, online at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/Berkeley/beals1/index.htm
[iii] The major sources for domestication and dispersal of Opuntia ficus-indica, the prickly pear, are Kiesling, R. 1998. Origen, domesticación y distribucioón de Opuntia ficus-indica. Journal of the Professional Association for Cactus Development 3. Online at http://www.jpacd.org/contents1998.htm and The Origins of an Important Cactus Crop, Opuntia Ficus-Indica (Cactaceae): New Molecular Evidence. Griffith, M. Patrick, American Journal Of Botany 91(11): 1915–1921. 2004. online at http://www.amjbot.org/cgi/reprint/91/11/1915
[iv] "Cactus." Encyclopedia of Food & Culture. Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 1. Gale Cengage, 2003. eNotes.com. 2006. 8 Mar, 2009 online at http://www.enotes.com/food-encyclopedia/

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cazuela: Chilean comfort food

A dish, usually round and made of clay, wider than deep, used for cooking. A stew cooked in this dish, made of various vegetables and meat. Diccionario De La Lengua Española – 2nd Edition (all translations mine)
Chile, Ecuador and Peru. A very substantial stew made of beef or chicken, corn, chili, and vegetables. Diccionario Español –Acanomas.com
Cazuela is Chilean meat-and-potatoes. It is home cooking; nourishing, inexpensive, every-day comfort food. But to Chilean anthropologist, Sonia Montecino Aguirre, it is more:
On the symbolic plane, cazuela is a metaphor for life and the cosmos. The foods are cooked in water, within a concave vessel like amniotic fluid in the womb; they transform and express, in their variable whole, the plurality of the animal, vegetable and mineral elements. They constitute a chromatic spectrum, a relation of the solid and liquid, of the salty, the spicy and the sweet. … [cazuela] evokes, in turn, the universe within a pot.[i]
In our house it is somewhat more mundane, perhaps because I’m not Chilean, though I must admit that to my wife cazuela has “meaning,” and not just substance. She says it means “home.”

Making cazuela is simple. Beef, lamb, pork, or chicken (preferably with bone and meat) is simmered in water with a touch of seasoning--garlic, onion, oregano, paprika.


When it is tender, vegetables are added: potatoes, corn on the cob, squash, all in large chunks; perhaps onion and bell pepper, and then rice or corn meal, and green beans or peas. On top a little parsley.  Need a recipe?  Here's a good one from fellow blogger, Pilar Hernandez ...but use butternut squash instead of pumpkin and most any cut of stewing beef and cook until done before adding veggies.

The origins of cazuela, or at least of a boiled dish of meats and vegetables, are as old as the pot itself. The pre-agricultural Jomon of Japan, the earliest culture known to make and use ceramics at more than 12,000 years ago,
…liked hearty seafood stews, made up of various fish, clams and other shellfish catches of the day. The ingredients would have varied with the seasons. The food was cooked in large conical or rounded pots with tapered or pointy bottoms that sat well in the soil and ash of the bonfire or hearth.  From food remains found in the ceramic pots, it was possible for archaeologists to know that the Jomon chef spent a long time finely chopping his or her herb or root vegetable ingredients on a flat stone, then throwing them all into the large Jomon pot and letting them boil extremely slowly over the fire.[ii]

Reconstructed Jomon pot of stew by the Kawasaki City Museum

Perhaps the best know is the French pot au feu, but there are also the New England boiled diners; the pucheros of Andalucía, the Canary Islands, Argentina, and Uruguay; the sancochos of the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Panamá, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico; Peru’s sanchochado: the adafina of the Sdephardic Jews; the Italian Bollito Misto; Spanish cocidos; and the Chinese sand pot dishes. Students of Chilean culinary history suggest that the immediate origin for the Chilean cazuela is probably the mixing of the Mapuche dish korrü and the Spanish olla podrida[iii].

Whatever their origin, Chile’s cazuelas are here to stay. Although you will seldom find cazuela on the menu of an elegant restaurant, every corner café will have it on its lunch-time menu.  Try it.
[i] Cocinas Mestizas de Chile: La Olla Deleitosa, Sonia Montecino Aguirre, Museo Chileno De Arte Precolombino, 2004 on line at http://www.precolombino.cl/mods/biblioteca/pdf/publicacion.php?id=11
[ii] Heritage of Japan “Jomon cuisine: What went into the Jomon pots?”
[iii]Apuntes Para La Historia De La Cocina Chilena, Eugenio Pereira Salas, 1977 on line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/dest.asp?id=historiadelacocinachilena

Monday, March 2, 2009

Santiago Kimchi: Eating Korean

Korean food, and especially kimchi, are literally and figuratively the antipole of Chilean cuisine. Half a world away; north, rather than south; and pungent, spicy, sour, and intense; the food of Korea is about as un-Chilean as possible.

Consider kimchi:  Napa cabbage, ground chili pepper, salt, garlic and brined fish or shrimp; all fermented together and served as a side dish or incorporated into other dishes. It’s crisp, cold, hot with chili, pungent with garlic, acidic, a little salty, and richly aromatic… both before and after ingestion. (My Chilean wife strongly recommends follow-up breath mints.)

So what is
kimchi doing in Santiago, home of subtle (let’s not say bland) flavors, restrained seasoning, only an occasional hint of garlic or chili—at least in the homes and restaurants of the middle and upper classes? It is providing an important flavor of home, culture and identity to an estimated 2,000 Koreans
[i], most of whom live in Santiago’s Patronato neighborhood, across the Río Moapocho from downtown, between Bellavista and La Vega.

Although the first Kroean immigrants came to Chile in 1953, refugees from the Korean War, sustained Korean immigration to Chile began in the 1970s, as the first few dozen families immigrated from Bolivia and Argentina. Direct immigration from Korea followed, and centered on the Patronato garment district, where Koreans began to supplant Arab immigrants in the manufacture, importation and sale of clothing
[ii]. And as their numbers increased, the first businesses and churches opened to serve the community: restaurants, barbershops, and protestant and catholic churches.

Which brings us back to
kimchi:  today there are at least a half-dozen Korean restaurants in Santiago, most in the Patronato or Recoleta, serving the Korean community, but also in bohemian Bellavista and even upscale Las Condes (The Gaon) aiming at a Chilean and international clientele.

My first encounter with Santiago
kimchi was in the Patronato, where I had gone in search of Chinese groceries. Across the street was a Korean restaurant, Sukyne.


Didn't go in the first day; I was a little intimidated by the door-front menu from which all I understood was “Only Korean Food.” But on the next trip to the Patronato I gathered my courage and entered---to find a pleasant, clean and cool dining room half full of mostly Korean (and some Chilean) diners. The waitress, a Chilean, greeted me and provided a menu explaining each dish. On one side were rice dishes and soups, each at 3500 Chilean pesos (about $7 US), and on the other side were more expensive dishes, some meant to be shared. Forearmed by a year in Korea in the 1970s and a refresher via the internet (“Korean cuisine” from Wikipedia and "Korean Menu Guide"), I ordered chab che bap, a stir-fry of transparent noodles, vegetables and beef [top row, middle on the picture menu—click to enlarge]. Very nice dish, not especially spicy, and served with a variety of side dishes: sweet spicy peanuts, sheets of nori (the marine alga sushi is wrapped in), spinach with sesame seeds, and of course, kimchi. Desert was a plate of fresh apricots.

On my next venture to Sukyne, I ordered bi bim bap (below), a stir-fry of vegetables and a little meat, topped by an egg and served with side dishes—and this time I brought a camera.

In the center, with the egg on top, is the bi bim bap, accompanied by (l to r) a light broth, a moderately hot chili paste to mix with the rice, very tasty pickled vegetables of unknown provenience, three slices of omelet with carrots and bean sprouts, kimchi, and nori—to wrap around a little rice. Perhaps you recognize the Heineken, and the chopsticks—I suspect forks are available for the asking. Grapes for desert.

On future visits I’m looking forward to bul go gui (literally “fire-meat,” at 12,000 CLP. for two), marinated beef loin cooked on a table-top grill and eaten with side dishes and rice, all wrapped in a lettuce leaf; and o jing oh bok um, stir-fried squid and vegetables (right). I also want to try kimbop, Korean sushi; mandu, fried dumplings ….and everything else that looks good on the menu.

Perhaps I’ll see you there.


[i] Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile, Noticias
21 Ago 08 | Coreanos en Chile: ¿Cómo ven a los chilenos?

[ii] Comunidad de inmigrantes Coreanos del barrio Patronato, Pablo Rossel E.
Universidad de Chile,