Most popular literature and travel guides will tell you that the food in Chile is relatively bland, boring by comparison to its neighbors, paling when confronted with the wonder that is Peruvian cuisine. While this certainly may be the case sometimes, Chilean food is definitely worth a shot, as it can be quite delicious.
My host mother especially likes to cook with spices (picante), and makes liberal use of a local spice called Ahí (not like the tuna, note the accent on the second syllable). I saw an ahí for the first time today, and it basically looks like a yellow jalapeño, and tastes like a spicier version of a sweet pepper.
You’ll also learn that they eat a lot of meat here, and that’s most certainly true. Still, most cooks do a good job of making a good balance of the food. Our meals almost always consist of some form of meat along with starch, often rice or pasta paired with chicken, but – like in the states – personal preference seems to guide culinary choice much more than any prescribed cultural trends.
Our meals also often have a salad component, though this is often just a bowl with broccoli, tomatoes and assorted vegetables, and/or corn and bean salad more than it seems to be big mixed salads. Palta (avocado) is quite popular, though semi-expensive here as well.
All in all, the meals I’ve had have been quite varied, from pasta with tomato sauce to a frittata-type egg omelet (which my host mother referred to as a “tortilla”), filled with rice and other deliciousness.
There are a few things that you see everywhere though, both delicious and otherwise, that stood out to me:
Empanadas – The burrito of the southern cone, empanadas are cheap, easy to find on every street, filling, always really similar but always a little different, and bleedin’ delicious. A fried, soft bread shell around a filling (either cheese or pino, a mixture of I think meat, often hard-boiled egg, onions, and others), empanadas usually run somewhere between 500-1000 pesos ($1-2), and always contain a single kalimata olive (with pit), so watch out. Empanadas are also “that dish” that it seems every Chilean has a family recipe for, and demands that one day you come over to try their recipe. I suggest you take them up on it, you won’t be disappointed.
Mineral water (Agua Gasificada) – I’m sure there’s some rich, traditional and anthropological explanation, but I still haven’t quite figured it out. Chileans love their fizzy water (agua con gas, or often just “gas”). This is so ingrained in their culture that not only do they serve it with your coffee, it’s entirely possible to go to a small shop (botilleria, or ferreteria) and not be able to find regular water (specifically “agua sin gas,” as you have to specify).
Mayonnaise – Oh. my. god. I feel like in the beginning of Undercover Brother, when our hero is forced to eat large amounts of mayonnaise, and can only survive by carrying hot sauce with him at all times. Chileans put large amounts of mayonnaise on everything, and when I say everything, I dare you to come here and fight me on it. I ordered a hot dog the other night and ended up with a normal hot dog in a normal bun, covered with chopped tomatoes and then sitting under 2 inches of solid mayo. I got a hamburger at a café called Palta York (avocado York, to the viewers at home), and at the end of the meal had a plate filled with green and white from the huge amount of mayo (and avocado) that had fallen out simply from my biting into it. My friend ordered a sandwich with “poco mayo” (little mayo), and they brought him a trough of extra mayo on the side, concerned that the amount they had put on anyway might not be enough. Be careful, mayonnaise use is rampant.
Wine – For those from California, like myself, having an excess of delicious wine is not particularly surprising and new, but it sure is pleasant. Wine, especially red wine (called “tinto” here, not “rojo” as one might expect), is freely available, often extremely cheap, and of the highest quality. While rich in their Cabernets and Merlots, I don’t think that Pinot Noir grows in Chile, though maybe I just haven’t seen it yet. What they have instead is Carmenere, a red wine grape that I don’t think exists anywhere else anymore. Carmenere is a delicious grape, less overbearing than Cabernet but more interesting than Merlot, and while cheapo wines (Clos) do exist, a big bottle of Carmenere will only cost you about $3, so it’s more than worth it.
Pisco – As far as I’ve been able to figure out, Pisco doesn’t truly exist in the U.S., and Chileans are fiercely proud of their drink. To me, though most locals disagree, it tastes like a better version of Tequila, which still puts it fairly low in my book, but is the favorite drink of many locals. Often served in combination with mixers (Piscola = pisco + cola, Pisco Sour = lemon juice + pisco), I’ve yet to see anyone doing straight shots of the stuff, though I wouldn’t be particularly surprised.
de lo Pobre – Literally “of the poor,” I can’t decide if they mean this name as a tribute, or purely ironically. Anything “de lo Pobre” is served with French fries, grilled onions and two fried eggs, so be ready for a lot of food.
Instant Coffee – I can honestly say that the instant coffee in Chile is the best I’ve had. I haven’t seen a single conventional coffee machine, as a coffee at a café is typically made in an espresso machine, served in small glasses with large amounts of foam. Anywhere else, coffee is just two scoops of powder and hot water. This seems especially surprising, as there is actually quite a big coffee culture in Chile, with several coffee shops all around, including espresso, latté and cappuccino. Black coffee is also the norm, so one has to order “cafe cortado” (literally “cut with milk”), though no one will look at you funny if you get it. One particularly fantastic sign, in the window of a Providencia cappuccino shop read “Negro como el Diablo. Caliente como el Infierno. Puro como un angel. Dulce como el amor.” Translated: “Black as the Devil. Hot as Hell. Pure as an Angel. Sweet as Love.”