Chilean food is not widely known outside of the country itself, unlike the more widely marketed Argentine or Peruvian cuisines. Taking advantage of a huge variety of local, seasonal ingredients, Chilean food incorporates influences from Spanish, German, Italian, French and even Middle Eastern cooking. It is often prepared simply and honestly, allowing the flavours of the fresh vegetables and world-class seafood to do the talking without unnecessary distractions. If you’re just passing through for a few days it can be easy to get dragged into a quick and easy diet of empanadas (fried or baked stuffed pastries), hot dogs with avocado, and french fries. But if you’re looking for a taste of the real Chile, you really have to take some time out to sample the classic dishes below.
Chile’s seafood is superlative, as you might expect from a country with over 5,000 km (3,100 miles) of coastline. One of the best ways to sample a bit of everything the Pacific Ocean has to offer is with a Paila Marina, or mixed seafood broth. This simple dish consists of a seafood stock seasoned with parsley and paprika, and a combination of seafood that can include Chilean mussels, giant barnacles, clams, shrimp and eel. The saltiness of the seafood is complemented nicely by the addition of onions, tomato and sweet bell peppers. Hearty and satisfying, this is much more than just a broth. Many Chileans swear by a Paila Marina as a hangover cure and some also consider it to be an aphrodisiac!
Pastel de Choclo
This traditional sweet corn bake can be something of a surprise for visitors from outside the Southern Cone, combining, as it does, a sugar-glazed corn topping with a mixed-meat savoury filling. Once you’ve broken through the caramelized coating, the pastel de choclo becomes something of a lucky dip! Within the filling of ground beef and onion you may find hunks of chicken, the odd raisin, a solitary olive and maybe even a slice of boiled egg. It’s not a combination that tickles everyone’s taste buds, but if its authentic Chilean home cooking that you’re after, this should be on your list!
Lamb is hard to come by in many areas of central and northern Chile, with beef and pork being far more popular choices. But in the southlands of Patagonia, lamb is king. The meat from Patagonian lambs has a well-earned global reputation for being healthy, lean, firm and packed with flavour, as a result of being raised and grazed on the wide open Patagonian plains. If you visit Patagonia, you simply can’t leave without tasting the lamb, prepared the traditional way - stretched over a frame and cooked oh so slowly over a wood fire. The lamb is generally served simply, without fussy flavourings, often with just a few potatoes and a side salad. Take it from us, you won’t need anything else.
Caldillo de congrio
Conger Eel Chowder has taken on cult status in Chile, thanks to a poem by Nobel Laureate winning writer Pablo Neruda, hailing this as a dish in which “the essences of Chile” are warmed and those who eat it “know heaven”. The succulent soup is made from a base of onions, garlic and tomatoes, to which conger eel stock is added and finally finished with cream, potatoes and - of course - marinated conger eel. Conger eel has a firm, white fish texture and flavour, but it can be tricky to find on the menu outside of Chile, so it’s worth making the most of this opportunity to try a truly local dish.
Humitas are a mouth-watering example of a pre-colonial Chilean dish that has survived the test of time and is as popular today as it has ever been. In fact, the name ‘humita’ comes from a Quechua word, and these little parcels of goodness were first enjoyed by Chile’s earliest inhabitants. Readily and cheaply available during the southern summer months, Chilean humitas are made from fresh corn and onion wrapped in corn husks and then boiled. The result is a creamy and comforting mash that you unwrap to enjoy. This dish is typically served with chopped, fresh tomatoes and salt, or if you’re feeling brave, with sugar instead!
Machas a la parmesana
Cheese and seafood may be frowned upon as a combination in European cooking, but anyone who’s enjoyed the juicy Chilean classic of Baked Clams with Parmesan will be left wondering why. Clams are found along the Chilean coast from the very north of the country down to the Lake District that lies far south of the capital, and have long been a staple of Chilean cuisine. For this dish, only the clam tongues are used and are served in the shell with a topping of cream, white wine and parmesan, along with a slice of lemon.
Pastel de Jaiba
This rich Chilean Blue Crab Bake is not for the calorie-counters out there, but if you can’t indulge when you’re on vacation, when can you? The deliciously sweet Chilean Blue Crab is abundant along Chile’s rocky Pacific coast, and is a favourite ingredient in a variety of traditional recipes. For this dish, shredded crab is combined with bread soaked in heavy cream and mixed with cheese before being baked in the shell or in a small ramekin. Perfect for enjoying alongside a glass of crisp Chilean Chardonnay!
To enjoy Chile’s culinary treasures for yourself, why not take a Chilean Culinary Experience Day Tour where you’ll explore Santiago’s popular fish market with an expert local chef, before learning how to prepare and enjoy a typical Chilean dish!
Keep an eye out for our upcoming features on Chilean puddings and desserts and a look at the different regional foods of Chile.