Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Do Chileans eat chili?

I like spicy food.  Strong flavors: ginger, garlic, mustard, pepper, anchovies, ripe cheese, horseradish, and especially chilies have a special attraction for me.  Among my favorite cuisines are Mexican, Thai, Korean, and Louisiana Creole-Cajun.  Food that English speakers call “hot;” picante in Spanish.

At this point you have probably realized that I am not Chilean: these are not qualities that Chileans look for in food.  In Chilean Spanish “picante” means not only spicy, but “‘tacky’; low class or bad quality [1].”  It is not popular.  (but see "In Chile, chili is aji")

But it was not always so.  Eugenio Pereira Salas, in his Notes for the History of Chilean Cuisine, writes that in the early colonial period:

Meats and vegetables were seasoned with chili. “There is no doubt—notes Gómez de Vidaurre [a Chilean Jesuit, 1737-1818]—that for one not accustomed to it, the first time it will cause great suffering from the burning that one feels in the lips and palate, but becoming accustomed to it after a short time, one looks for the good effects that it provides.” [2]

Pereira Salas speaks of popular picante Chilean foods such as:  valican “a great tray of shellfish stewed with chili” and the ancestor of charquican and all the “-cans”);” “ñache, warm sheep’s blood collected in a glass with plenty of ground chili, onion and cilantro;” polmay, a dish of shellfish steamed in the shell and seasoned with chili, onion and other spices; “flour, jerky, and beans with salt and chili or pepper;” “the Creole empanada baked with fat and filled with pinu, a hash of meat, onion, raisins, eggs and chilies;” “cut olives with chili;” “a very substantial beef soup, seasoned with chili, and thickened with corn flour; ” “sanco or chercán, a countryman’s snack made of toasted wheat flour, fat, onion, chili, salt and hot water:” “oak sprouts shaped like cauliflower [3] with bread crumbs and chili;” etc., etc., 

Chili continued to be basic to the Chilean diet into the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially among working class families, urban and rural.  Claudio Gay (1800-1873), a French botanist and naturalist who visited Chile during the 1830s and wrote widely concerning its geography, natural history, and agriculture found that:

The food of the country people is very simple, but in needs to be prepared with pepper capable of invigorating the fibers relaxed by the heat and the water they drink; this pepper is the chili, consumed in great quantity.  In general their laziness and indolence cause them to live very badly, eating mostly vegetables and above all potatoes, beans, peas, wheat and corn, sometimes as rice is eaten or in the form of toasted flour, and in rare cases meat, preferring to sell the animals that they raise and never lack.  When it is the hacienda owner who feeds them they seem to still be in the Middle Ages for the uniformity of their foods, only a plate of beans in the north and of peas in the south, simply cooked in water with a little grease or cracklings.  This is the year-round diet that they prefer and request, imagining that it makes them strong and fit for their work, which the results seem to confirm. [4] 

A working class Santiago family in (below), subject of a 1902 study conducted by two students of Political Economy, had a similar diet, similarly rich in chili.  The students concluded that:

The basis of [the diet], generally composed of vegetables such as beans, potatoes and wheat, is healthy and nutritious, but its preparation makes it dangerous.  To its irregular cooking are added innumerable irritating condiments, such as chili, pepper, and grease which make it difficult to digest.  …the abundance of condiments such as the one they call “color,” which is a mix of ordinary grease and chili or paprika, that they use without measure, distorts the goodness of their frugivorous [sic] diet, and makes the carnivorous more defective.[5]
 But change was afoot.
 From the last third of the 19th century until the first three decades of the 20th, Latin America experienced a period of unprecedented economic growth sustained by exports of raw materials and foods.  Among the relevant processes during these years was the growth of cities (mainly the capitals); centers radiating “progress,” “civilization” and “decency.”  There the elites’ cultural gaze was fixed firmly on the other side of the Atlantic, from which they took models of behavior and consumption that dominated in the most prominent social circles.  “The upper class adopted English and French turns and rejected the comme ci, comme ça people, desiring to maintain their touch with the snobs [siúticos].”[6]

English influence…

made itself felt permanently in masculine styles, in the sporting life, in the modest and elegant etiquette and the rules of a refined urbanity which brought a distinguished tone to the existence of the elites.  …In gastronomy, we owe them ….the habit of tea that gained popular favor, pushing aside the Creole mate of the isolated agricultural regions.  …and the breakfast of “Quaker” [oatmeal]  …and cocoa, which gained acceptance among children and the elderly.[7]

And French chefs imported for the dining rooms of the best hotels resulted in an “belle époque” of French gastronomy, “when, without doubt, all the wealthy families kept a cook initiated in the mysteries of the Cordon Bleu.”[8]  Adoption of European styles by the elites, which spread to the middle classes, led to a more refined Chilean cuisine, less Creole, less picante, more international, and often in French.  “And when the dish was Creole and there was no Gallic equivalent, it was frenchified; chicken cazuela, for example, was called cazuelá de volailles.”[9]  

But while Chilean elites were experiencing the belle époque, workers were hungry and “the majority of the population was in misery.”  Food exports led to high prices, without concomitant increases in wages of the poor. 

What occurred in Chile at the end of the 19th century was a reflection of the existing social abyss. While some anchored themselves to European culinary traditions, eager to differentiate themselves from the “loutish masses” [rotosa plebe], others had to figure out how to subsist with what fell into their hands, combining indigenous and Spanish tastes. Never the less, the two identities forged on these bases had something important in common:  delight in the pleasures of the table [la buena mesa] and the exaltation of food; sophisticated and exotic for some, scarce but always appetizing for others.[10]

A related influence may have been evolving social Darwinian concepts that reflected the widening gap between elites and workers, and gave a “scientific” basis to the differentiation between “decent people” and the “loutish masses.”  In the United States, reaction to increasing immigration led nativists to distain not only the immigrants, but their cuisines, thought to be unhealthy and to lead to immorality:

To a thoroughly normal and unperverted taste, irritating condiments of all sorts are very obnoxious. It is true that Nature accommodates herself to their use with food to such a degree that they may be employed for years without apparently producing very grave results; but this very condition is a source of injury, since it is nothing more nor less than the going to sleep of the sentinels which nature has posted at the portal of the body, for the purpose of giving warning of danger. The nerves of sensibility have become benumbed to such a degree that they no longer offer remonstrance against irritating substances, and allow the enemy to enter into the citadel of life.   …The use of condiments is unquestionably a strong auxiliary to the formation of a habit of using intoxicating drinks. Persons addicted to the use of intoxicating liquors are, as a rule, fond of stimulating and highly seasoned foods; and although the converse is not always true, yet it is apparent to every thoughtful person, that the use of a diet composed of highly seasoned and irritating food, institutes the conditions necessary for the acquirement of a taste for intoxicating liquors. [11]

The extent to which this kind of thinking—directed at lower classes rather than to immigrants--existed in Chile is unclear, but the change in emphasis from Gay’s observation in the 1870s (above) that workers’ diet seemingly “makes them strong and fit” to that of the 1902 study which found their diet “distorted” by the addition of “irritating condiments,” is suggestive.  And it certainly mirrors culinary and social perspectives of the Chilean upper and middle classes in the 20th century.  

Some indication of the change can be seen in historic Chilean cookbooks (many of which are available on-line through Memoria Chilena).  While literacy, and especially cookbook reading, was limited to upper and middle classes whose taste was already evolving, the 1882 New Cooking Manual:  Containing 377 dishes selected from the cuisines of France, Spain, Chile, England and Italy [12] (which, in spite of the title, is predominantly Chilean, and in Spanish) occasionally includes ají and garlic and color (lard or beef tallow colored with paprika) are frequent ingredients.

By contrast, the 1911Chilean cookbook, La Negrita Doddy, is strongly French.  Among the soups alone are: Consommé a la Charley, Soup al Conde de Paris, …of asparagus le Crecy, …of fish a la Provenzal (Bouillabaise); …of leeks and lettuce, …of fish or chicken quenelles, and …of Vertepré.   Her recipes include color only twice, both times in cazuelas, and plain lard is always given as an alternative.  Ají occurs in ajiaco, and valdiviano, two soups with early colonial roots which, to her credit, she says “should be picante,” and in only two other dishes, one Peruvian. Garlic is now recommended rarely, with onion sometimes given as an alternative, “according to your taste.”    And the classic Creole charquican now contains neither color nor chili, but English Worchester sauce.[13]


Finally in 1951 we have Famous Recipes of the Hotel Crillón [14], at the height of French influence on Chilean cuisine, which includes no color, no ají and in fact, no Chilean recipes—although in true French fashion, a bit of garlic.

Chilean cuisine today and tomorrow.

While the French influence has waned and Creole cuisine is now featured mainly in restaurants specializing in Comida Típica, most Chilean restaurant cuisine continues to avoid strong flavors.  Neither chili nor garlic is in evidence on most menus (outside of the pebre, Chilean salsa, served with bread upon being seated), and ethnic cuisines are, for the most part, adapted to Chilean taste.  Chilean Chinese food is usually innocent of ginger, garlic and chili; Mexican food is blander than in Iowa; sushi has avocado and cream cheese rather than raw fish, and most Indian and Thai are almost unrecognizable.  (Korean food is the exception, but it’s so far out of sync with Chilean taste that no modification will make it popular—thank goodness!)

But there are glimmers of change.   Peruvian cuisine is very popular in Santiago and seems true to what is served in Peru, at least in restaurants catering to tourists; the Mexican Taquería El Ranchero is pretty authentic and offers 16 salsas, including some hot ones; the restaurant Zanzibar offers an international menu with dishes that have some semblance to the spicy originals; and the China Village comes closer to international style Cantonese that anywhere else I’ve eaten in Santiago.

And tomorrow?  French influence in 1900 could hardly be greater than the  globalized American influence that dominates Chilean taste today, and Chileans are traveling and presumable eating more internationally than ever before.  Meanwhile foodie magazines and cable TV’s are bringing international taste for chili, garlic, ginger, and other strong flavors into thousands of middle and upper class Chilean homes.   In the 50’s US cuisine was also adverse to garlic and chili:  today salsa Mexicana is more popular than catsup.  And “curry has grown to be referred to as ‘Britain’s national dish.' "[15]  

Will globalization bring chili to ChileVamos a ver.

[1] Brennan, John & Alvaro Taboada.  2006.  How to Survive in the Chilean Jungle Santiago: Area Zero.
[2] Pereira Salas, Eugenio.  1977. Apuntes para la historia de la cocina chilena.  Santiago : Universitaria.  p. 23 on line at 
[3] Could this be the Chilean wild mushroom gargal which is shaped like a cauliflower?
[4] Gay, Claudio. 1882. Agricultura, Vol. 1 p. 160. París: En casa del autor; Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago.
[5] Eyzaguirre Rouse, Guillermo. 1903. Monografía de una familia obrera de Santiago. Santiago, Chile : Imprenta Barcelona. On line at
[  6] Palma Alvarado, Daniel. 2004 De apetitos y de cañas. El consumo de alimentos y bebidas en Santiago a fines del siglo XIX. P. 394.  Historia No 37, Vol. II, julio-diciembre 2004: 391-417 on line at
[7] Pereira Salas,  p. 96
[8] Pereira Salas,  p.  107
[9] Palma Alvarado, p. 396
[10] Palma Alvarado, p. 401
[11] Kellogg, A. M. 1893 Science in the Kitchen. A Scientific Treatise on Food Substances and their Dietetic Properties, together with a Practical Explanation of the Principles of Healthful Cookery, and a Large Number of Original, Palatable, and Wholesome Recipes. Chicago, Ill:  Modern Medicine Publishing Co. on line at
[12]Anonymous. 1882.  Nuevo manual de cocina: conteniendo 377 recetas de guisos escojidos de las cocinas francesas, española, chilena, inglesa e italiana : arregladas para el uso de las familias del país. Valparaíso : Libr. del Mercurio de Orestes L. Tornero
[13] Lawe.  1911 La negrita Doddy : nuevo libro de cocina, enseñanza completa de la cocina casera i parte de la gran cocina : con un apéndice de recetas útiles i de los deberes de una dueña de casa. Santiago : Soc. Impr. y Litogr., Universo.  On line at
[14]Anonymous 1951.  Famosas recetas del Hotel Crillón.  Santiago. On line at
[15] National Curry Week in Great Britain.  Food  On line at


  1. Thanks for this great history of how chili and spice left Chile. I always wondered what happened. I certainly do hope it comes back. I love my chilies and am planning on being in Chile for the next couple of years.

  2. Jami,

    Thanks. I'm glad you found it interesting. I've been puzzling about this since I came to Chile. Nice to hear I'm not the only one.

    Best wishes - Jim

  3. Wow- what great old cookbooks you've found! I've got the recent edition of the Pereira Salas book, but have never seen the others! Great finds!
    Great post too!

  4. Thanks, Margaret. The cookbooks, and several more, are on line at Memoria Chilena.

    And felicidades on your grandson!



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