Five classic Chilean foods

chilean foodChilean food doesn’t have the glamour and romance of the cuisine of its neighbor, Argentina, nor the complexity and exotic Japanese influences bestowed upon the contemporary dishes of its other neighbor, Peru. I just returned from my second visit to Chile, where in between consuming epic quantities of manjar (dulce de leche) and pisco sours, I found more substantial food to love.

Chilean food is of humble origins; a combination of indigenous influence, simple technique, and hearty, regional ingredients designed to sustain and nourish the body despite limited means and harsh climate. Today, Santiago is a glossy, metropolitan capital of seven million, and there’s no shortage of high-end dining with regard to various cuisines. But travel beyond the city limits, and you’ll see tweaks on Chilean specialties depending upon what part of the country you’re visiting.

Northern Chile is largely high-altitude desert, while Central and Southern Chile have more of a focus on seafood. The following is a very simplified list, but they’re five of the most classic dishes to be found throughout the country.Try them for a taste of Chilean culture and history.

1. Empanadas
Not to be confused with the Argentinean variety, which are essentially a culture within a culture, the Chilean empanada is usually baked, larger and flatter in composition (either crescents or rectangular in shape), and less varied in variety. But what’s not to love about a tender, flaky pocket of dough stuffed with seasoned ground beef, hardboiled egg, and olive; roasted vegetables, or melted, stringy cheese? Not much. Find them at panaderias, shops, markets, or restaurants offering “comida typica.”

2. Curanto
This is a specialty of the lovely island and archipelago of Chiloe in Chilean Patagonia’s Lake District. Curanto is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat bake believed to have been inspired by Polynesian luau via Easter Island (Rapa Nui). It’s traditionally cooked in a pit that is covered with seaweed or the leaves of nalca, an indigenous plant related to rhubarb. The potato flatbreads, milcao, and chapalele (the latter flavored with pork cracklings), are delicious street foods in their own right that can be found in coastal towns throughout this region. A curanto is a must-see if you’re visiting Chiloe.chilean food3. Pastel de choclo
Sort of an indigenous shepherd’s pie, this comforting dish is composed of ground corn (choclo) mixed with hard-boiled egg, olive, and usually ground beef and/or chicken. It’s baked and served in an earthenware bowl called a paila, and it makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

4. Caldillo de Congrio
Okay, I confess that I have a particular dislike for the congrio, or conger eel, which is an obsession in Chile. It’s not that it’s bad; I just don’t care for most fish as a rule (for the record, it’s fairly mild, white, firm, and rather dry and flaky). But I would be remiss to not include it, because it’s such a classic. Whether fried or served in a caldillo, or brothy soup seasoned with cilantro, carrots, potato, and fish stock, it’s hearty, rustic, and very representative of Chile’s culture of subsistence and commercial fishermen.

5. Chupe
This is a somewhat generic term for a creamy seafood stew enriched with milk or cream. Depending upon where you are (or what country you’re in, because it’s also found in Peru and Bolivia), chupe might contain shrimp (thus, it would be called chupe de camarones), fish, chicken, beef, or lamb. It also contains vegetables, potatoes or yuca, and tomato, but the magic is in the addition of merquen, an indigenous (via the Mapuche people) spice mixture made with smoked, powdered cacho de cabra chili. The end result is fragrant, complex, and delicious.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Undiscovered New York: Take the 7 train to Latin America

A traveler could spend years exploring the vast region of the globe known as “Latin America.” From the picturesque colonial villages and indigenous cultures of Mexico, to the caipirinhas and Amazon rainforest in Brazil, to gauchos and cosmopolitan Buenos Aires in Argentina, Latin America is a region that defies easy categorization. But what if I told you that with a 30 minute subway ride from Midtown Manhattan, you could visit all of Latin America in a single afternoon?

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating (slightly). But the fact of the matter is that immigration from Latin America to the Big Apple is thriving, and visitors can reap the benefits by taking a mini-tour of Latin America in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. In just two hours along a strip of Roosevelt Avenue, one of the borough’s main thoroughfares, I had the chance to sample delicious Mexican street tacos, visit the shop of an indigenous Amazonian fortune teller and gorge myself on some Argentine sweets at a local bakery.

Tired of New York City pizza? Looking to get some Latin flavor during your trip and save you that flight down to Bogota? Join Undiscovered New York as we tour Roosevelt Avenue, New York’s “mini Latin America.”
What’s to Eat?
Perhaps the biggest attraction along Roosevelt Avenue is the authentic food. What all can you eat? There’s no simple way to answer this question – the amount of food and the countries it comes from is simply mind-boggling. Within a single block you are confronted with street trucks selling Ecuadorian specialties, Cuban lunch counters, cheesy arepas, and Mexican pastries among others. Particularly well-represented are the cuisines of Ecuador and Colombia, with numerous spots selling favorites like seafood stews with hominy, encebollado and fried plantains.

I quickly located a nearby taco stand and ordered myself a soft tortilla stuffed with spicy chorizo. After topping it with some lime and chili sauce I was enjoying some south-of-the-border snacking bliss. But no meal is complete without dessert, right? I stopped in B’Aires, an Argentine-style bakery, where I picked up some pastries stuffed with dulce de leche. Next I visited Vallecito Bakery, a Mexican pastry shop where I sipped on a bottle of lime Jarritos. I’m going to have to go back some other time for the Peruvian ceviche and Uruguayan morcilla. I was too stuffed!

What Else is There to Do?
After you’ve finished polishing off a few authentic tacos or that cup of seafood stew, you’ll probably be looking for something to do. What I found most interesting about this stretch of Roosevelt Avenue was browsing the various shops offering regional crafts and services. Day of the Dead is nearly upon us, and many of the Mexican vendors were selling brightly colored candy skulls, decorations and Pan de Muerto, the holiday’s special bread. I also discovered several shops advertising “Amazonian shaman” fortune tellers. The stores are filled with ritual indigenous trinkets and totems as well as “authentic” Amazon shamans who can tell your future. If shopping or fortune telliing isn’t really your thing, there’s plenty of bars along the strip offering nightly live music from their country of origin.

How to Get There
Though it may seem far away, making your way to Jackson Heights is not as hard as it may seem. Visitors near Times Square or Grand Central Terminal are only a short train ride away. Just grab a purple 7 train heading towards Flushing Main Street in Queens. You’ll be getting off at the 82 St – Jackson Heights. The strip of Roosevelt that runs from 80th to 90th streets is pretty much ground zero, with great restaurants, shops and bars branching off in all directions from the main drag.

Are you ready for some authentic Latin American culture? Vamos!