Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Pastel de Choclo (Corn Pie) Mystery

Today, according to an (unscientific) survey conducted by a Chilean internet magazine, pastel de choclo is Chile’s favorite home cooked meal, favored by 21% of respondents.[1]
Among the most Chilean of dishes, Pastel de choclo is a pie filled with beef and onions, a piece of chicken, an olive and a quarter boiled egg, and covered with dough made of fresh corn. (Choclo is Andean Spanish for ear of corn, from the Quechan chocollo.)  It is always on the menu of Chilean restaurants serving “typical foods,” and appears frequently in workers' lunchrooms, and neighborhood cafes.  It is sold in Independence Day celebration booths, supermarkets, bakeries, and by sidewalk vendors.  It was the first meal my future wife served me when I came to Santiago, and surely would be much appreciated by hungry mourners when I depart. 

Pastel de chocloI (or pastel de maiz—standard Spanish for “corn pie”) is mestizo cooking at its most straightforward:  it combines the filling for Spanish empanadas with a crust of the corn dough used to make humitas, the indigenous tamales of the Andean cultures.  And like humitas and empanadas it must be very old and very Chilean, surely originating, as Chilean anthropologist Sonia Montecino Aguirre suggests, at the hands of Mapuche cooks in the kitchens of the Spanish conquerors.[2]

But does it?

Chilean novelist Isabel Allende has it a little differently, as fiction allows. Her heroine Inéz Suárez, Pedro de Valdivia’s mistress and companion in the conquest of Chile, invents empanadas with a corm crust—which can hardly be anything other than pastel de choclo—in Cuzco, Peru, in 1539.
I had a clay oven built in the patio and Calatlina and I begin making empanadas. Wheat flour was very dear, but we learned how to make them from corn meal. They never had time to cool after they came from the oven because the smell spread throughout the neighborhood and people came running to buy them.  ….The strong aroma of meat, fried onion, cumin and baked dough soaked into my skin so deeply that I have never lost it.  I will die smelling like an empanada.[3] 
Allende seems to have gotten one part right; Chile’s iconic pastel de choclo appears to have a Peruvian origin; or at least the earliest mention of pastel de choclo comes from Peru.  Peruvian historian Ricardo Palma tells of a remarkable banquet served in Cuzco in 1608:
…the Dominicans gave a banquet for the reconciled [Augustinians and Franciscans], But what a banquet!  There was theological soup, fried giblets, stuffed turkey, rabbit carapulcrta  [stewed with peanuts], lamb stew, pipian and locro of pigs feet,  meat in adobo [spicy marinade] St. Peter and St. Paul (beans with meat, spices and vinegar) and pastel de choclo… [4]
And since it existed in colonial Peru, one would expect to find pastel de choclo in colonial Chile, but it isn’t mentioned, as far as I can tell, in any of the colonial sources.  The earliest cl mention I’ve encountered is from Claudio Gay, French botanist and naturalist who explored Chile in the 1830s. Writing about the food and drink of central Chilean peasants he describes a meat pie—clearly a less elegant version than served at the Dominicans’ banquet--that today we would call a pastel de choclo:
….in the great fiestas, and above all at weddings… chicha, young wine, or wine itself accompanies the pies so well enjoyed and made of picadillo [hash] or pino [“filling” in the Mapuche language] of mutton, mixed sometimes with chicken, and covered with a layer of corn ground with sugar and fat, and seasoned as always with a lot of chili and other condiments. These pies were also made with green beans, onions, olives, etc., and were cooked the same day to be eaten hot. They were seldom missing from the table on a day of celebration.[5]
Nor does this pie appear in 19th century accounts of travelers in Chile, who often describe the meals, humble or elegant, they were served.  Chilean historian Martín Lara, who evidently is also interested in such things, notes: 
It is interesting that in the diary of Mary Graham, as in the rest of the books and memoirs consulted, the classic Chilean foods of the present such as pastel de choclo or empanadas do not appear.  …In contrast to the empanadas and pastels, [is] the constant and repeated reference made to charquicán as a very common dish on the tables of Chileans of all social statuses.[6] 
The next instance occurs some 40 years later, in 1877, when Chilean writer and politician Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna mentions pastel de maiz in a context that also suggest that it is a dish of the common people.  He writes: 
We don’t know if modern presidents of this corn country still like corn, like Alonso de Rivera [governor of Chile, 1601-05] did, or if they serve humitas, pastel de maiz, or even the humble chuchoca [corn meal] at their tables.[7] 
So, pastel de choclo (or maiz) surely exists in 19th century Chile, at least among campesinos, even if  the 19th century cookbooks do not include it, not even the comprehensive 1882 New Kinchen Manual containing 377 selected dishes from the cuisines of France, Spain, Chile, England and Italy, which devotes a chapter to empanadas and meat pies.[8]   Nor is it in Palma Alvarado’s fine study of the food and drink of Santiagueños in the late 19th century.[9]  And most surprisingly, Chilean historian Eugenio Pereira Salas has no mention of pastel de choclo in his classic Notes for the History of Chilean Cuisine, first published in 1943.  I wonder why.
It’s inescapable:  Chile’s famous pastel de choclo didn’t achieve its mythic status until the well into the 20th century. And it may have come via Peru, Bolivia or Argentina where it was common.[10]

Pastel de Choclo recipes

The earliest recipe I have found comes, not from Chile, but from an 1890 Argentine cookbook, where it is called pastel de choclo Sucre [Bolivia] style:

Pastel de choclo a la sucrense 
Grate the corn, and grind very well, on a grinding stone or mortar. Add a cup of milk, stir well and strain through a thin cloth, squeezing hard to extract the juice. Return the corn to the mortar, add another cup of milk, grind again, and strain. To this corn juice, add white corn flour or cornstarch a spoonful at a time, stirring as you pour the flour, and beat until thickened. Season with salt and a little sugar, at most a tablespoon or two, to bring out the natural sweetness of the corn. Melt a large lump of butter, and mix with the dough, stirring and tossing, until the butter has been incorporated. If the dough has thickened more than usual; add a little milk, and always stirring, cook over a moderate fire. Test often, so by the taste you will know when it is cooked and ready. Then remove it from the heat, add butter, stir and cool. When cold, add four egg yokes, and stir to incorporate into the dough.
Butter the bottom of a heat resistant ceramic dish and spread a layer of corn dough. On this place your filling; what ever kind you like, either of pieces of pigeon in seasoned marinade [adobo] or stewed, or with a hash seasoned with spices, raisins of Malaga, almonds and olives. Over the filling, symmetrically place slices of hard boiled eggs and olives. Cover the filling with another layer of corn dough and put in the oven.
When the surface of the cake has browned to a deep gold, it is done and should go directly from the oven to the table, because the hotter, the more delicious. Natalia R. Dorado (Cochab) [Cochabamba, Bolivia][11]

This interesting recipe, with its smooth dough, butter, raisins of Malaga, and almond is clearly from a social status well above that of Chilean peasants. It is probably the descendant of the Dominicans’ version of 1608, but it has some common elements to the earliest Chilean recipe I’ve found:  La Negrita Doddy’s 1911 recipe for pastel de maiz[12]  including eggs and sugar in the dough, a bottom as well as a top layer of corn dough, and raisins. 

Her pino, or filling, which is the same as for her empanadas, is very much like today's:
Cut an onion into a small dice, fry with fifty grams of lard; and when browned add double the quantity of roasted meat, also cut into small cubes, reserving the juice.  Brown, adding a tablespoon of flour, salt, the reserved meat juices and a cup [200 ml.] of broth.  After it has boiled, remove from the fire and add raisins, well washed and seeded, olives, a tablespoon of parsley, green or red chili, and allow to cool.  It is better prepared the day before.

Oddly, the first Chilean recipe I’ve fond that calls the dish pastel de choclo rather that … de maiz, uses only a top crust, and was published in the USA. Evidently by the 1920s it had become so popular that the US Embassy in Santiago submitted a recipe to appear among other classic Chilean dishes in the 1927 US Congressional Club Cook Book:  Favorite National and International Recipes.[13]  

The Congressional Club recipe, above, is a good one; a bit spicier than today’s most common version which doesn’t tend to include “red pepper” or tomato, but does include a piece of chicken.  For the standard Chilean recipe, the obvious source is the classic Chilean Cookbook, the 700 page La Gran Cocina Chilena (8th edition, 2000):

Pastel de Choclo

8 ears of corn [see note, below]
1 kg. ground beef
           1/2 kg. chicken pieces
6 onions
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon cumin
1/8 kg olives (5 oz)
1/8 kg raisins (ditto)
2 eggs
Salt and pepper
 Cut the onions into a small dice and fry, then add the ground meat, garlic, salt, pepper, and cumin, and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.  Boil the chicken and cut into pieces.  Boil the eggs and cut into rounds.
Grate the corn and blend to a purée in a blender, add a little milk and fry the mixture in a little oil without burning it. 
 In an oven proof pan [or ideally in individual earthenware bowls of greda de Pomaire] place the pieces of chicken, separated, and the olives and raisins and over that the prepared filling and the egg rounds, topped by a layer of the corn purée, sprinkling a little sugar on top to aid in browning.  Bake in a hot over for 15 minutes.
 Note: The corn used is “field corn,” which is starchier than sweet corn and will cook into a thick paste.  See Chilean Corn (Choclo Chileno). If field corn is not available add corn meal to thicken the mixture. In Chilean supermarkets prepared corn dough for humitas and pastel de choclo is available frozen.

And the mystery?  The origins of the Chilean version of pastel de choclo are clearly humble; it was never a sophisticated dish like that of the Dominicans in 1608 or the Argentineans and Bolivians of 1890.  The dish Gay saw in the 1830s among rural peasants either arose spontaneously in rural Chile, as Sonia Montecino suggests, or arrived with some low level conquistador’s woman, to become the center piece in peasant fiestas and rural hacienda kitchens, but not in elegant homes.  And not in Santiago

At least not until the 1900s. Santiago’s population grew from 190,000 in 1882 to 406,500 in 1916,[14] due primarily to immigration from rural communities.  Among those rural migrants, we can suppose there was a woman; a descendant perhaps of Allende’s Inez, a strong independent woman.  She supported herself and her children by baking her rural specialty, pastel de choclo. She was a good cook and a better businesswoman; her pies sold well and soon she expanded her sales. Others followed and by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, pastel de choclo (or pastel de maiz as the gentry called it) had become popular; so popular that a recipe even appeared in the elegant French-influenced cookbook of La Negrita Doddy.   And from there it grew and grew.

A just-so story? 
“How the Pastel de Choclo became Chile’s favorite food.”

Sure, why not?

[1] Terra, Blog  El Terremoto se quedó con el premio Bicentenario.  2010-03-26.  On line at  The other dishes mentioned can be found by searching this blog.
[2] Montecino Aguirre, Sonia. 2004. Cocinas Mestizas de Chile: La Olla Deleitosa, Sonia Montecino Aguirre, Museo Chileno De Arte Precolombino.  On line at
[3] Allende, Isabel.  2007. Ines of My Soul: A Novel.  New York: Harper Perennial. p. 88.
[4] Palma, Ricardo.  1893. Tradiciones Peruanas Quinta Serie, III Agustinos y franciscanos Ricardo Palma, p 193. On line at as quoted in Arturo Jiménez Borja. 2008 Historia de la Gastronomía Peruana, part 6. On line at  (Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine,)
[5] Gay, Claudio. 1862-1865.  Agricultura, Tomo 1. París: En casa del autor; Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago, p. 162. On line at Later note: Juan Ignacio Molina writing in 1810 mentions that the dough for humitas was also used as for "cajas de pasteles,"  boxes (doughs?) for pies. Were these pasteles de choclo? See for the full quotation.
[6] Lara, Martín. 2007. Viaje y representación: el caso de Mary Graham, trayectoria de una viajera romántica. una aproximación a su mirada sobre chile.  Historia y geografía, Nº. 20, 2007, p. 171-204  on line at
[7] Vicuña Mackenna, Benjamín. 1877. De Valparaiso a Santiago, datos, impresiones, noticias, episodios de viaje: guía del Ferro-carril central. Serie Biblioteca de la Imprenta de la librería del Mercurio. (1a. Ed.), Imprenta de la Librería del Mercurio, de E. Undurraga y Cía., Santiago, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, Chile. On line at
[8] Available through Memoria Chilena’s digitized collection, on line at
[9] 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
[10] As a search for “pastel de choclo” in 19th century Google Books in Spanish will confirm.
[11] Manuela Gorriti, Juana.  1890. Cocina Ecléctica. Primera edición, Buenos Aires, Félix Lajouane Editor (Librairie Générale). On line at
[12] 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. p.150 (filling) and  p.188 (dough) On line at
[13] Congressional Club Cook Book:  Favorite National and International Recipes.  The Congressional Club, 1927.  On line at http://schlar;lib.vt.euc/digital_books/pdf/TX715.C755.pdf  The embassy “recipe” actually said only to combine the filling from the empanada recipe with the corn dough from the humitas, both submitted by the wife of the Chilean military attaché.  The recipe here is a cut-and-paste from the originals.
[14] Chile, historical demographical data of the urban centers.  On line at


  1. Súper interesante la historia del pastel de choclo, aunque va a sacar roncha, como siempre, el que no sea originario de Chile ;-)
    Hace 15 años una empleada en casa de mis suegros hacía elpastel de choclo con una base de masa parecida a la de empanadas, como un pie... nunca mas lo he vuelto a comer así.
    Gracias por el dato del corn meal, he tenido el problema de que queda muy líquida la pastelera.
    Que tengas un buen fin de semana largo,

  2. Primero el pisco, después las papas…. ¿y ahora el pastel de choclo? ¿No hay nada que es puro chileno? Pero no me han sacado ronchos (¿correcto? Para me es un Chilenismo nuevo) para los otros, tal ves me desculen para esto también.

    Y gracias, como siempre, para tus comentariaos. Sabes que el “pie” gringo que es parecido a lo que hizo la empleada es el “beef pot pie.” También el “shepherds pie” (pastel de papas) gringa es muy rica. Pruébalos.


  3. Puede ser o no científico; puede o no ser chileno, pero puxas que estoy de acuerdo con la encuesta y los platos seleccionados.

  4. Mi hijastra esta de acuerdo, pero para mi esposa, no hay nada mas rico, ni mas chileno, que el charquicán.

    buen provecho - Jim

  5. Yo adoro el pastel de choclo Jim, y la verdad es que muchas comidas son de aquí y de allá, ya lo debes saber por el tiempo que vive aquí, hemos heredado de los españoles, peruanos, alemanes, que sería de nosotros sin la fantástica repostería alemana los kuchenes y todo eso? Los amo, yo que soy del sur, los kuchenes y studeles eran parte de la vida.
    Mi abuela materna era española de Asturias, mi abuelo idem de Inglaterra, y mis otros abuelos chilenos, asi que la ensalada que tenmos en la casa es genial, mi mamá cocina de todo pero adoramos, el charquican, el pastel de choclo, los porotos granados, las empanadas, quizas las cultura de la comida va cambiando más rápido que antes por este rico intercambio de recetas e ideas que se dan en los Blogs y otras partes.
    Se me olvidó decirte que tambien comemos comida árabe, mi esposo es decendiente de Palestinos, y si tu ves mi blog tengo de todo por eos mismo, somos lo que comemos. muchos cariños y perdona la lata. Me encantó tu post. cariños

  6. Gracias, Gloria

    Y viva la globalización de slow food que nos trae hummus, pad Thai, kuchen y kimchi.


  7. Querido: sabes que tu español me encanta pero vamos a tener que filtrar algunas palabras, creo que no permitire que te "desculen" : Wifita

  8. Ummmm… entonces, talvez “me disculpen” :-)

    gracias, wifita

  9. Me encanta tu blog, yo también soy antropóloga (pero cocino habitualmente) y quedé encantada con estos temas desde que tuve la suerte de tomar el curso de Antropología Culinaria con Sonia Montecino.
    Muchas gracias por ilustrarnos con datos y opiniones interesantes.

    Saludos a todos los lectores

  10. Gracias Paz,

    Me alegre que encuentres mis posts interesantes. Me perece que casi siempre los antropólogos tienen interés in la cocina y cocinan muy bien; y seguro que tengo razón en tu caso. También, he leído mucho de lo que Sonia Montecino ha escrito y admiro sus obras; Cocinas Mestizas es una de los libros mas lindos de comida y cultura que he visto en cualquier idioma.

    Best wishes - Jim

  11. i still remember how the prince Alberto from Monaco really enjoyed the corn pie when we made it for the Gastronomic Chilean Week at Monaco with Chef Guillermo Rodriguez.

    Corn pie is our gastro-business card for foodies and foreigners!

  12. wonderful post Jim, el pastel de choclo is one of my favorites as well, since I've been to Chile threee times, and being a spaniard I feel really close to southamerican gastronomy, packed with flavour and homemade wonders, love your blog, cheers from London!

  13. Thanks Chef and Pity... pastel de choclo clearly has an international appeal.


  14. Yo creo que la investigacion tiene algunos sesgos inevitables. Primero, la mencion que se hace en Peru en una cena elegante, donde esta todo en ingles, pero el autor traduce "pastel de choclo" puede llevar a equivocacion ya que este termino tiene actualmente un significado y connotacion que probablemente no correspondian al que se tenia en esa epoca. Por otra parte, el hecho de que no aparezca mencionado en libros ingleses y norteamericanos puede significar solamente, la falta de investigacion de la cocina rural, mas que la falta de "pasteles de choclo" como en otras areas de la ciencia ha sido el caso (ejemplo: errores mayores en geografia y ciencias naturales pueden encontrarse en los informes de la expedicion astronomica norteamericana en el s.XIX, buscar comentarios de I. Domeiko en el archivo de los anales de la U. de Chile.).Saludos. Rodrigo, Houston, Texas.

  15. Rodrigo,

    Muchas gracias por tu comentario; de veras lo agradezco mucho porque estas interesado en las mismas preguntas que yo. En esto caso, no creo que fue un error de traducción, o si fue, fue mío por que yo lo traduje. El original fue en castellano: “Un mes después los dominicos daban un banquete a los reconciliados; pero ¡qué banquete! Hubo sopa teóloga, fritanga de menudillos, pavo relleno, carapulcra de conejo, estofado de carnero, pepián y locro de patitas, carne en adobo, San Pedro y San Pablo, y pastel de choclo…” (vea la nota 4). Pero como tanbien hay un pastel de choclo peruano dulce, que no tiene carne, y es posible que esto fue el mencionado. Aunque no lo creo, porque todos los otros platos tenían carne, pero seguro que es posible.

    El otro punto, de que los visitantes no hicieron bastantes investigaciones en el campo, puede tener razón. Gay encontró el pastel en el campo, pero no fue mencionado en los libros de ninguno de los otros visitantes que conozco. Pero el punto mío [y de Martín Lara (nota 6)] es que nombraron muchos otro platos, pero no el pastel. Ni tampoco por Palma Alvarado en su articulo de comidas populares de Santiago in 1900. No creo que fue comun en Santiago antes de los primeros años del siglo 20. Sobre I. Domiyo, conozco su libro, Araucanía y sus habitantes, pero no sabia que tenia errores: sus comentarios sobre comida y agricultura me parecen bien.

    Pero de todos modos, agradezco tus comentarios… no hay mejor lector que el que te ayuda con sus críticas.

    Gracias - Jim

  16. Jim, I think this a wonderful post,Great introduction! I didn't know I love Pastel de Choclos until I married my Chilean-husband--six years ago-- :) Almost impossible to believe how simple ingredients could turn into a delicious Dish!
    La verdad Muy Bueno Felicidades!

    Cheers from New Zealand, Aldy.

  17. Thanks Aldy. We should for a mutual admiration society; your blog is great with wonderful photos.

    Best wishes - Jim

  18. Congratulations Jim, your article follows the Historian's mathodology. The sticky point is the ongoing dispute between Chileans and Peruvians that persists from the late 18hundreds war, it really doesn't make sense but that is the spice of life that entertains some. One question "reconciliados" refers to some people that were spared the penalties of the Inquisition and the heavy use of pork meat reinforces this. There are different versions of "Pastel de Choclo" surely "Choclo" is a Qichua word which discards the contention of "Mapuche" authorship, as the word Pisco which is from Paracas culture and the name of the region where the original pisco comes from. In fact the Peruvian Pisco (Dry) differs from the Chilean (sweet). Anyway enjoy and be satisfied. Thank you for your great article. Walter
    Ps. By the way my wife is Chilean also.

  19. ¿Puedo usar la foto que aparece primero en esta nota?
    Mil gracias :)

  20. Si, con mucho gusto segun el "Creative Commons" convenio (arriba). No puede usar para algo comercial y tienes que citar me con un link: FOTO: Jim Stuart, Eating Chilean.


  21. Hi Jim! I enjoy your blog. I'm passionate foodie and I have lived in Chile and Perusome time. So, all these creations are familiar to me. I have read book of Sonia Montecino too. However, it's almost impossible to make perfect pastel de choclo in Latvia because of choclo. Fresh choclo is rare and even imported one never tastes like choclero. Have you studied more about varieties of choclo used in this preparation? Guru of Peruvian cuisine Gaston Acurio admires 2 varieties - choclo costeno and choclo serrano. What kind of choclo do you prefer?

  22. Linda,

    Thanks for the kind comments. Here in Chile the maize variety used for pastel de choclo and humitas is called choclo humero. Ir is very large, with 20 or more rows of kernels and, according to “Races of Maize in Chile” is probably descended from a cross between native maize and dent corn introduced from the United States in the 19th century. (see Eating Chilean Corn - Choclo Chileno I imagine the kind of maize that arrives in Latvia is "sweet corn" (choclo americano in Chile) which is sweet rather than starchy and doesn't make very good pastel, but if you mix it with polenta it may help a little.

    Best wishes...

  23. Hi Jim,

    thanks a lot for reply. I finished my blog entry about pastel de choclo in Latvian (sorry you cannt read it). And I'm sorry for some stupid questions but I come from non-maiz country because we don't grow maiz and therefore I don't have much understanding about its proper culinary use. I remember that in La Vega market in Stgo vendors offered choclero for humitas. Anyway I understand that maiz should be at its green state, milky and starchy for good humitas, right?

    What is possible to get in Latvia is the same what you can buy canned by Bonduelle, for example. They are quite small and yellow grains of very sweet aftertaste. I guess it is american sweet maiz.

    p.s. Article about blue eggs is very interesting.

    1. Ah, but of course we read Latvian ...with a little help from Google Translate :-) which actually did a pretty good job. And your recipe looks like it should work.

      Best wishes


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