Saturday, April 30, 2011

Vegetarian Chile

If you arrived here in search of that North American favorite, vegetarian chili, you have misgoogled; this is about vegetarian food in Chile. But it might be worth reading further; Chile has an extensive repertory of meatless dishes that fed the upper classes on meatless Fridays and the poor all year round.
The food of the country people is very simple….  most of the time eating vegetables and above all potatoes, beans, peas, wheat and corn boiled like rice or as toasted flour, and on rare cases meat, preferring to sell the animals 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 great uniformity of their food, because it is made up of only a single plate of beans in the north and peas in the south, simply cooked in water or seasoned with a little fat or pork cracklings. This is the diet of all year round, which they prefer and request, feeling that it makes them strong and long suffering for their work, which the results seem to confirm.[1]
Whether the Chilean peasantry’s diet was largely meatless by choice, as Claudio Gay’s 1860s work suggests, or through poverty, as is more likely (note that food for festivals and weddings was not meatless) they developed a large variety of meatless dishes, some now classics of Chile’s Creole cuisine.

The food of the indigenous Mapuche, which blended with colonial Spanish cooking to produce Creole cuisine, was based on maize, potatoes, common and lima beans, squash, and quinoa, along with the meat of domesticated llamas and wild game, fish and shellfish.  Some of today’s popular meatless dishes are direct descendants of Mapuche foods:

Humitas, Chilean tamales (and incidentally the subject of the first post in “Eating Chilean”) continue to be among the 10 most popular Chilean home cooked foods.[2] The original Mapuche humitas were made solely of maize (corn) picked while still in the milky stage, but today’s humitas also include lard, onion and basil, though a vegetarian or vegan version is a simple modification of the recipe in the link above.

Porotos Granados, shell beans cooked with corn and squash, are also among Chileans’ top ten home cooked meals.  Cranberry beans are boiled with a bit of onion.  When within 30 minutes or so of being done, winter squash (zapallo) is added, and when it has cooked soft,  corn cut from the cob is added and cooked for an additional 10 minutes until the stew is thick.  For a more detailed and illustrated recipe, take a look at this one by Chilean Gringa blogger Eileen Smith.  And for a winter version using dry beans and spagetti, there is Porotos con riendas (beans with reins).

Tomatican, another Chilean Creole dish with indigenous origins, is a stew of tomatoes, corn, and onions, which may include meat, lima beans or cochayuyo, eatable kelp. Vegetarian versions are common and have entered the international repertory of meatless dishes.  Here is a recipe from Mooswood Restaurant Cooks at Home.  The version with cochauyo seems not to be available elsewhere in English, so here’s one adapted from Recetas de Cocina.

          Bundled...             and packaged cochayuyo

Incidentally cochayuyo is an excelent addition to meatless cooking of all kinds. types.  In Chile it replaces meat in dishes ranging from stews and soups to pastas to empanadas.  There are several more recipies in English at Seaweed: Cochayuyo and Luche.  It is occasionally available by mail in the US at Amigo Foods or Tu Chile Aquí and in Europe at Cresta Ecologia


Vegetarianism as a movement, which began in England in 1847[3], seems to have arrived in Chile in the late 19th century, along with many other European influences.  Der Vegetarier for June 15, 1891:  “Herr Rudolf Franck describes the progress of Vegetarianism in Chili. Though the Valparaiso Society numbers only 12 members, it possesses a library and reading room, but, as yet, no restaurant. The chief reason for this want is the difficulty in finding a manager.”   Three years later “the Valparaiso Vegetarian Society, which was founded in 1889, now counts 25 members, mostly Germans...” [4]

By the 1930s, there were evidently enough Chilean vegetarians to support publication of a cook book, the 1931 Manual of Chilean Vegetarian Cuisine, [5] which, along with many French, Spanish and Italian recipes (pastas, tortillas, vegetable pies and puddings) includes a variety of clearly Chilean dishes: pancurtas (dumplings or noodles for soup), maize chupe (chupes are milk based stews), humitas, stewed hominy, cochayuyo “meatballs,” cochayuyo pudding, fried cochayuyo, stuffed cochayuyo, etc.

Her recipe for Stewed Hominy (mote de maiz guisado) is as follows: 
First pass the maize kernels through clear lye, and when the husks are loose, remove them and boil until cooked, then grind in the machine [food mill], fry in vegetable shortening with a little minced onion and parsley and lighten with milk. To serve, top with two egg yokes, grated cheese and cream, and surround with fried potatoes.

Among those Chilean vegetarians of the 1930s the most famous today is Manuel Lezaeta Acharán, author of La Medicina Natural al Alcance de Todos [6] (Natural Medicine in Reach of Everyone), which by 1989 had been published in 148 editions around the world and was the most-read book of natural medicine in Latin America.

Born in 1881, he entered the University of Chile medical school in 1899, but was forced to drop out because of syphilis and gonorrhea, then incurable. After unsuccessful treatment by numerous conventional physicians, he met German priest and practitioner of hydrotherapy and diet therapy Tadeo de Wiesent, who returned him to health in a few months. Thereafter, completely disillusioned with conventional medicine, he devoted his life to study and practice of natural medicine. He became an attorney and Professor of Spanish and History at the Santiago Institute of Humanities, and traveled through out the Americas promoting his Thermal Doctrine of the Science of Health. [7]

His ten rules for health are:
Breathe pure air.  Eat exclusively natural products.  Be sober constantly.  Only drink plain water.  Be very clean in every way.  Dominate the passions, seeking greater chastity.  Never be idle.  Rest and sleep only as necessary.  Dress simply and with ease, and Cultivate all the virtues, trying to always be happy.

Lezaeta Acharán’s dietary philosophy is based on what he considers to be natural law:

The natural order establishes that the mineral kingdom sustains the vegetal and the vegetal sustains he animal, from which results that ingestion of mineral substances, as are almost all pharmaceutical products, is to introduce extraneous materials into the organism that should not be assimilated and thus need to be eliminated. (p. 7)

Knowledgeable persons… have demonstrated without a doubt, that man is fructivorous that is, that his organism is constituted to feed itself on fruits.  Darwin, Lamark, Haecke, etc. have confirmed that the physiological analog of the man is the fructivorous ape.  (p. 8)

The meat of animals has not been destined to feed man and, more than food, it is a stimulant owing to the toxins that it possesses, among which are creatine, creatinine, cadaverin, etc., which injected into a rabbit in small quantities cause its sudden death. (p. 8)

Many think that a fruit diet is insufficient because shortly after having eaten they feel the need to eat again.  On the other hand a plate of meat or beans or “satisfies” the person for several hours. This is explained because fruits and seeds are digested and assimilated easily without leaving unhealthy residues.  In contrast a piece of meat or a plate of beans require an extended effort that makes the individual feel full for the four hours or more required for digestion, or better said, for “indigestion.” (p. 98)

The diet he recommends is based on fruits, seeds, leaves and roots, and includes limited amounts of whole grain bread, soft cheeses, hard cooked eggs, honey, milk, olives and even wine, but meats, fish and legumes (beans, lentils, etc.) are to be avoided:
Breakfast:  Only raw fruits in season or dry if fresh are not available. Lacking this, a plate of raw oatmeal soaked in water for 20 minutes or more, and sweetened with honey or raisins, figs or bananas. 
Dinner at mid day:  Freely if hungry, preferring salads with olives or chopped hard cooked egg, vegetables in season with nuts, omelets of vegetables mixed with egg, fresh cheese [quesillo] or raw sugar; a little bread is possible if it is whole grain or toasted.  Avoid lunch meats, fried foods, and condiments such as pepper or mustard.
Supper:  If hungry one may eat as in mid day, but in smaller quantities.  Generally a salad or a bit of raw fruit will be sufficient.  Eat slowly and deliberately to generate abundant saliva. Avoid sweets, conserves, milk, aged cheese, soft cooked eggs, and meat broths.  Don’t smoke. (p. 181)

Lezaeta Acharán’s teachings continue to be followed in Latin America and Santiago’s Villa de Vida Natural [8] includes a spa, hotel and restaurant with reasonable prices for meals and stays of one to 10 days.  Other Villas exist in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and perhaps elsewhere. 

In spite of Lezaeta Acharán’s fame, vegetarians remain a distinct minority in Chile, where annual per capita meat consumption is now over 81 kg. (just under ½ lb. per day), but meatless meals continue to be a regular part of many households’ diets.  Recipes in the most recent (April, 2011) edition of Chile’s major food magazine, Paula Cocina are almost all meatless (presumably for Lent), and my wife’s family has always had occasional meatless dinners; usually once a week or more. 

Our most popular meatless dishes are tortillas, Spanish style omelets, and vegetable tarts or pies; both of which I learned from my wife.

Tortilla Española

Tortillas are literally “little cakes” a term the Spanish applied to the Mexican maize bread, the Aztecs called taxcal, and to little breads or cakes most everywhere.  But this tortilla is a mixture of eggs and vegetables (sometimes meats are added) eaten as a main course or cut into small pieces as appetizers or tapas. Serve hot or at room temperature.

The classic Spanish tortilla contains potatoes and onions, but an infinity of tortilla varieties are popular in Spain and in here in Chile as well.

The basic procedure is to precook the vegetables, season with salt and pepper, mix with beaten eggs and allow to soak for a few minutes.  The mixture is then poured into a hot, well-oiled skilled and cooked slowly until about ¾ set.  The tortilla is then turned over (here’s how) and cooked a few minutes more, until the center is set but still moist.

Tortilla de porotos verdes (green beans)

The classic Spanish tortilla of potatoes and onions calls for the vegetables to be simmered in olive oil until cooked, but not brown, then drained and added to the eggs.  For a slightly less caloric version parboil the thinly sliced potatoes for a few minutes instead of frying.  Green beans, another family favorite, are also best parboiled, as are broccoli, cauliflower, etc., but spinach, zucchini, chard, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplant, etc. are best sautéed in olive oil along with a few sliced onions.  Very wet vegetables like spinach, chard, tomatoes and zucchini should be drained or squeezed to remove most of their liquids.  A tablespoon or two of flour added to the eggs is also a good idea with many fillings to prevent watery tortillas.  And while not traditional, cheese also makes a good addition.

Some of our favorites are spinach and onion, French cut green beans with mushrooms, sliced zucchini with red bell peppers, potatoes with bell peppers, caramelized onions, and so on.  And of course a tortilla is a great way to use leftovers.  Do you have leftover rice, Brussels sprouts and winter squash?  Make a tortilla.

Another favorite is a vegetable pie, a pastel de verduras, like my wife’s green bean, onion and mushroom tart below.

The procedure is to make a pie crust, then parboil the beans and sauté the mushrooms and onions.  Mix with blanched green beans and moisten with cream (½ cup or so), fill the crust and top with a lattice of pie dough.  Bake in a moderate oven until the crust is brown.  Spinach or chard also makes a good filling.    

Vegetarian restaurants and products

Santiago is not Portland (said be the US’s most veggie friendly city), but there are a few vegetarian restaurants; tofu, quinoa, textured soy protein, and a wide variety of grains and legumes are available if you know were to look; and there are fresh fruits and vegetables in great variety and low cost in ferias, “farmer’s markets."  On the other hand, non-vegetarian restaurants (except Chinese restaurants) seldom have main dishes without meat or seafood, and most shortening and margarines contain fish or animal fats, so breads and pastries are suspect. 


The Vegetarian Endeavor in Santiago” in Revolver Magazine has restaurant reviews.

Reinaldo’s blog: Tiendas de comidas vegetarianas (Stores with vegetarian foods)

Cocina del mercado A blog on vegetarian cooking and recipes by the chef/owner of one of Santiago’s best known Vegetarian restaurants—in Spanish.

Chile Forum:  Food in Chile. An English language forum with a search function where you can search for (and find!) where to buy tofu, soy milk, etc.

[1] Gay, Claudio. 1862-1865.  Agricultura, Tomo 2. París: En casa del autor; Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago, p. 161. On line at
[2] Terra, Blog  El Terremoto se quedó con el premio Bicentenario.  2010-03-26.  On line at
[3]  The Modern Vegetarian Movement. How Vegetarians Work. On line at
[4] History of Chile Vegetarian Societies, international Vegetarian Union on line at
[5] Vergara Díaz, Lucía. 1  931. Manual de cocina vegetariana chilena. Santiago: Impr. Gutenberg, selected chapters on line at
[6] Lezaeta Acharan, Manuel. 1997.  Medicina natural al alcance de todos, 2nd Edition.  Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Pax.  On line at Google books
[7] Manuel Lezaeta Acharán. Wikipedia Español.  On line at
[8] Villa De Vida Natural “Manuel Lezaeta Acharan”, Tomas Moro 261, Las Condes. Telefonos 716 3250