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Savoring Chilean Food and Drink

While traveling through Chile, my husband and I enjoyed some incredible dining experiences.  Fortunately, exploring the cities and towns by foot, and skiing in Portillo burned off an ample number of calories. Otherwise, we would have returned home at least 10 pounds heavier.

The Geography of Chilean Food

The varied geography and climates of the different regions of Chile triggers a diversity of fruits and vegetables. Southern Chile produces potatoes, apples and cabbages, while olives, kiwis, and dates grow in the north. Meanwhile, when the cold Humboldt Current streaming from Antarctica mixes with the warm Pacific Ocean currents to the north, it creates a rich sea, filled with an abundance of fish and shellfish.  Seafood is one of the country’s culinary strong suits, particularly along the coast and in Santiago, and you are generally going to end up happy if you go with whatever fresh fish option they happen to be offering.  Chilean beef is not as famous as the meat you will find on your travels through Brazil and Argentina, but the farms of Chile raise livestock that rivals its South American counterparts.  The barbequed lamb you can find at an Asado Chileno (Chilean BBQ) in Patagonia can be one of the most delectable things you’ll ever eat.

The History and Culture of Chilean Culinary Traditions

The gastronomic history of Chile begins with the Amerindians, who incorporated corn into all of their dishes.  Chileans still enjoy corn-based specialties, including the humitas – pureedcorn cooked in corn husks – and  a corn and meat pie called pastel de choclo.

The Spanish arrived Chile in 1541. They came bearing olives, walnuts, grapes rice, chestnuts, citrus fruits, wheat, sugar, garlic and an infinite variety of spices, along with cheeses and animals used for meat dishes.  Then, in 1848, German immigrants announced their arrival in Chile with their rich pastries. Italian and Arab immigrants soon joined the party.

The Italians introduced the art of mixing ices with the different Chilean fruits.  Arab immigrants used spices and herbs to create dishes that were both sweet and salty tastes. The British came to Chile between 1880 and 1900, and established the high tea tradition. Chileans still enjoy té con leche, Spanish for tea with milk.  Unlike in Argentina, coffee is not a big part of the gastronomic and social life of the country.

Chilean Meals of the Day

As a confirmed snack-addict, I was pleased to discover that Chileans enjoy four meals a day.

  • Desayuno: Breakfast usually consists of fresh bread with with jelly or a delicious caramel-like topping called manjar, accompanied by coffee or tea. If you plan to travel to Argentina on your trip to Chile, don’t get confused. The Argentinians refer to manjar as dulce de leche.
  • Almuerzo: Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Chile. It might consist of a variety of bean dishes, or a traditional Chilean stew called cazuela. Meat and vegetables comprise this stew, which is cooked within a ceramic pot.  On the surface, cazuela is just good, old-fashioned comfort food, but anthropologist Sonia Montecino Aguirre attributes mystical qualities to the dish. In her book titled Cocinas Mestizas de Chile: La Olla Deleitosa, she explains:

“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.”

  • Once: When I was teaching a ski fitness week in Portillo, I had an apres ski stretch class scheduled for 5p.m. Hardly anyone came. I was competing with Once, the Chilean version of the British high tea, which consists of pastries and/or sandwiches.  Legend has it that during the 1800?s,  field and mine workers were allowed a small, late afternoon break, in order to get a bite to eat.  Alcohol was strictly forbidden, but the workers really wanted their drinks. They collaborated and devised the code word “once,” meaning 11, to signify aguardiente, an alcoholic drink with 11 letters in its name.
  • Cena: Thank goodness for Once, because supper in Chile comes no earlier than 8 p.m., and sometimes as late as midnight… it also, in Latin American style, often takes place at a very leisurely pace.

Chilean Culinary Specialties

Here are some other examples of typical Chilean dishes that you will likely come across in your travels:

  • The Empanada: The Chilean empanada is usually baked, instead of fried. Its rectangular shape makes it resemble a turnover. Beef, onions, raisins, black olives and hard boiled eggs fill the Empanada de Pino, a Chilean specialty.
  • Chupe: A seafood stew made with milk or cream.
  • Machas a la Parmesana:  Clams baked with a thin layer of parmesan cheese… this is one of those dishes that under the right conditions, like after a day of touring around Valparaiso and Isla Negra, can be memorably good.  Pair it with a crisp, chilled white wine and… buen provecho.
  • Caldillo de Congrio: Before you order this dish, you should know that congrio is a type of Chilean eel. Caldillo is a soup seasoned with cilantro, and filled with carrots, potato, and fish stock  The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a  poem about Caldillo de Congrio: In the storm-tossed Chilean sea, lives the rosy conger, giant eel of snowy flesh. And in Chilean stewpots, along the coast, was born the chowder, thick and succulent, a boon to man.

Not every Chilean dish will inspire you to wax poetic, but many will please the palate.