Chile boasts a vast range of quality raw produce, but many restaurants lack imagination, offering the same limited menu. That’s not to say, however, that you can’t eat well in Chile, and the fish and seafood, in particular, are superb. There are also various traditional dishes, often called comida típica or comida criolla, still served in old-fashioned restaurants known as picadas. Furthermore, most cities have increasing numbers of smarter restaurants.
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On the whole, eating out tends to be inexpensive. In local restaurants you can expect to pay around CH$3500–5500 for a main course. If you’re aiming to keep costs way down, rather than resort to the innumerable fast-food outlets, you could head for the municipal markets found in most towns; besides offering an abundance of cheap, fresh produce, they are usually dotted with food stalls. The best trick is to join the Chileans and make lunch your main meal of the day; many restaurants offer a fixed-price menú del día, always much better value than the à la carte options.
As for the other meals of the day, breakfast at most residenciales and hotels is usually a disappointing affair of toasted rolls, jam and tea or coffee, though if your hosts are inclined to pamper you, this will be accompanied by ham, cheese and cake. The great tradition of onces – literally “elevenses” but served, like afternoon tea, around 5 o’clock – is a light snack consisting of bread, ham, cheese and biscuits when taken at home, or huge fruit tarts and cakes when out in a salon de té. Except during annual holidays or at weekends, relatively few Chileans go out to dinner, which leaves most restaurants very quiet through the week. Note, also, that most places don’t open for dinner before 8 or 9pm.
Fish and seafood
Chile’s fish and seafood rank among the best in the world. To sample the freshest offerings, head to one of the many marisquerías (fish restaurants), particularly those along the coasts of the Litoral Central and the Norte Chico.
A note of caution: you should never collect shellfish from the beach to eat unless you know for sure that the area is free of red tide, an alga that makes shellfish toxic, causing death within a few hours of consumption. There is little danger of eating shellfish contaminated by red tide in restaurants.
Chileans are also tremendous carnivores, with beef featuring prominently on most restaurant menus and family dinner tables. The summertime asado (barbecue) is a national institution. Always slow, leisurely affairs, accompanied by lots of Chilean wine, asados take place not only in back gardens, but also in specially equipped picnic areas that fill to bursting on summer weekends. In the south, where the weather is less reliable, large covered grills known as quinchos provide an alternative venue for grilling; animals such as goats are often sliced in half and cooked in quinchos on long skewers, Brazilian-style. The restaurant equivalent of an asado is the parrillada – a mixture of grilled steaks, chops and sausages, sometimes served on a hot grill by your table. Following beef in the popularity stakes is chicken, which is usually served fried, but can also be enjoyed oven- or spit-roasted. Chilean chickens are nearly all corn-fed and are delicious when well cooked. Succulent, spit-roasted chicken is widely available and inexpensive in Arica, in the far north, owing to the locally based chicken breeding industries. In central Chile, pollo al coñac is a popular, and very tasty, chicken casserole, served in large clay pots with brandy and cream. Pork also features on many restaurant menus, but lamb (cordero) is hardly ever available, except in the Lake District.
There’s a wide range of older, traditional dishes – usually a fusion of indigenous and Hispanic influences – that are still very much a part of Chilean home cooking and can, with a little luck, be found in the small, old-fashioned restaurants that survive in the hidden corners of town or out in the countryside. Though recipes vary from region to region, depending on the local produce available, there are a few core staples, including sweetcorn and potatoes. Sweetcorn forms the basis of two of the most traditional Chilean dishes: humitas – mashed corn, wrapped in corn husks and steamed – and pastel de choclo, a pie made of mince or chicken topped by pureed sweetcorn and sugar and then baked in the oven. The potato, meanwhile, is such an important staple in the Chilean diet that it has acquired its own mythology and folklore.
Another great traditional dish (or snack) is the empanada, as symbolic as the national flag, although it was introduced by the Spanish and is popular throughout South America. Baked or fried, large or small, sweet or savoury, empanadas (which are not unlike Cornish pasties) can be filled with almost anything, but the most traditional filling is pino, a mixture of minced beef, loads of onions, a slice of hard-boiled egg, and an olive, with the pit (beware, as this is a good way to leave a tooth in Chile!).
Also very typical are soups and broths. There are numerous varieties, of which the most famous, cropping up as a starter on many a set meal, is cazuela. Named after large Spanish saucepans, cazuela is celebrated as much for its appearance as for its taste, with ingredients carefully chosen and cooked to retain their colour and texture: pale yellow potato, orange pumpkin, split rice, green beans, peas and deep yellow sweetcorn swimming in stock, served in a large soup plate with a piece of meat on the bone, and sprinkled with parsley and coriander. Other favourite one-pot broths include caldillo, very similar to cazuela but with fish instead of meat, and escabechado, a stew made with fish steaks that have been fried then soaked in vinegar. Doubtless because it is so economical, offal enjoys a long (though waning) history in Chilean cookery.
All of Chile’s towns are well endowed with greasy-spoon cafés and snack bars – usually known as fuentes de soda or schoperías – serving draught beer and cheap fast food. This usually consists of sandwiches, which are consumed voraciously by Chileans – indeed, one variety, the Barros Luco (beef and melted cheese), is named after a former president who is said to have devised the combination. Barros Jarpa (ham and cheese), is another dietary staple. The choice of fillings is firmly meat-based, with most options revolving around churrasco – a thin cut of griddle-fried beef, rather like a minute steak.
Chile is also the unlikely home of a variety of hot dogs. Sitting all by itself in a bun, the hot dog is simply called a vienesa, but it’s called an especial when mayonnaise is squeezed along the top, and the addition of tomato, sauerkraut and avocado makes it a dinámico. The most popular version is the italiano – tomato, mayonnaise and avocado, which together resemble the colours of the Italian flag. It is not until the sausage is buried under extra sauerkraut and chopped tomato that it becomes completely completo.
Soft fizzy drinks can be found everywhere in Chile. Bottled mineral water, too, is widely available, both sparkling (con gas) and still (sin gas). Coffee, in Chile, is usually instant Nescafé, although it’s getting easier to find good, real coffee (ask for café de grano). Herbal teas are widely available and come in countless flavours. The most popular varieties are manzanilla (camomile), menta (mint) and boldo (a fragrant native plant). Where Chile really comes into its own, though, is with the delicious, freshly squeezed fruit juices (jugos naturales) available in many bars, restaurants and roadside stalls, especially in the Central Valley, and a few northern oases like Pica. Another home-grown drink is mote con huesillo, sold at numerous roadsides throughout the Central Valley and Lake District in summer. Mote is boiled or soaked barley grain, and huesillos are sun-dried peaches, though this sweet, gooey drink can be made with any fresh soft fruit.
Chilean beer doesn’t come in many varieties, with Cristal and Escudo dominating the choice of bottled lagers, and Kunstman the only speciality brand to make a national mark.
There’s always a good selection of wine, on the other hand, though the choice on restaurant lists rarely reflects the vast range of wines produced for export. Regarded as the Chilean national drink, pisco sour is a tangy, refreshing aperitif made from pisco (a white brandy created from distilled Moscatel grapes, freshly squeezed lemon juice and sugar). You may also come across a number of regional specialities, including chicha de manzana (apple cider), made at home by every huaso in the Central Valley. Further south, in the Lake District, a traditional element of many drinks is harina tostada (toasted maize flour), used by the Mapuche since pre-Spanish days. Today it’s still common to see Mapuche sitting around a table with a large jug of frothy coffee-coloured liquid, which is dark beer mixed with harina tostada. The flour is also mixed with cheap wine, among other drinks, and is usually stocked by the sackful at local Lake District bars.
The potato, a staple in the Chilean diet, has long been the subject of numerous traditions and superstitions. Nowhere is this truer than in Chiloé, where potatoes must be sown during a waning moon in August or September, unless large macho specimens are required for seeds, in which case they are sown at the full moon. Neighbours help each other in every aspect of cultivation, a communal labouring tradition known as a minga. There are three main mingas: quechatún, the turning of the earth; siembra de papa, the planting; and cosecha or sacadura, the harvest.
Among the mythology and traditional customs associated with the potato are “magic stones” (piedras cupucas), which are found on Cerro Chepu, a hill near Ancud in Chiloé. Believed to have been hidden by witches (brujos), these porous silicone stones are carefully guarded until the potato plants bloom, and then the flowers are placed on them and burnt as a sacrifice.
Another potato myth holds that a small silver lizard, el Lluhay, feeds on potato flowers, and anyone who can catch one is guaranteed good fortune. Still another maintains that a maggot, la coipone, which lives in the potato root ball, will prevent babies from crying when placed under their pillows.
Mash it up: popular and traditional potato dishes
Chuchoca Mashed potato mixed with flour and pig fat, plastered onto a long, thick wooden pole (chuchoquero) and cooked over an open fire.
Colao Small cakes made from potato, wheat, pork fat and crackling, cooked in hot embers.
Mallo de papas Potato stew.
Mayo de papas Peeled, boiled potatoes mashed with onions, chillies, pepper and pig fat.
Mayocan A potato, seaweed and dried-shellfish stew traditionally eaten for breakfast.
Milcao Small cakes of grated and mashed potato that are steamed like dumplings, baked or deep fried.
Pan de papas Baked flat round cakes of mashed potato mixed with flour, eggs and pig fat.
Papas rellenas Sausage-shaped rolls of mashed potato mixed with flour and filled with meat or shellfish.
Pastel de papas A baked dish with alternating layers of mashed potato and meat or shellfish topped with more potato.