(Palafitos along the coast during a low-tide)
Almost everyone I spoke to before heading over said that Chilean food is poor and pales in contrast to it’s neighbors Argentina and Peru. It’s unfortunate that I was quick to assimilate to that mentality before doing a bit of my own research; at the tail end of my Argentina trip I actually had that feeling about Argentine food, aside from Asado and a few dishes, and started to relish the exploration of Chilean food—Pastel del Choclo (Corn Pie), Cadillo de Congrio (Eel Stew), and Machas a la Parmesana (Clams with Cheese) along with street foods such as completos (hot dogs with avocado) and churrasco (beef sandwhiches). That was just a sampling. Speaking to locals, I actually learned about the introverted nature of this country—often looked upon as the younger brother by neighboring countries—with a tendency not to show-off as much as countries like Peru or Argentina. This country is very focused internally on growth and it’s future–steady growth in the past, but a potential slowing due to over reliance on copper–which could be a reason that the government hasn’t allocated as much of a budget towards tourism. If you have time, some very interesting points of Chilean history is the economic experiments of the Chicago Boys, as well as, the rule of Augusto Pinochet—a dictator that lost during a self-imposed democratic election.
For now, back to food. The one dish and technique I was especially excited for was Curanto. I learned about Curanto in a backwards fashion—during my dark ages of not researching Chilean Cuisine—by asking another traveler for a low key location and I was pointed in the direction of Chiloe. The first thing that you learn when google-ing Chiloe is the mysticism and unique history. It’s that same peculiar history and isolation that led to the development of a spectacularly diverse cuisine. After hearing about the history of this island, and this new form of meat-feast, I knew that I had to stop here during my journey, even if it meant sacrificing drunken escapades in Mendoza.
Chiloe is the ultimatum of a small town—where you say “Hola” as you pass by people on the street, where saying I’m from the States still brings amazement, and where people are still excited to answer questions about their craft—on the precipice of becoming a burgeoning tourist town with a bit of everything for everyone—where Palafitos, or Fisherman houses, are being renovated into boutique hotels, where one of the major sites, or rather 16, are old-school churches on the UNESCO list, or where seals pass you by during a restaurant meal and there are chances to catch penguins or whales at national parks scattered across the island. It’s the first town during my journey in South America where I wasn’t greeted by a tourist office upon getting off a bus and had to scrap my way to the hostel—which is in fact one of those renovated Palafitos.
The integrity of seafood to the cuisine is evident with ceviche (preparations ranging from mussels, to sea urchin, and octopus) being the form of “street food” here. At the market in Castro, you can find all the ingredients for a Curanto—fresh choritos or mussels, clams, pork, as well as delicacies such as picoroco or giant barnacle and piure or tunicate—which is my Moby Dick during this trip, a short bus ride away is Dalcahue known for Cazuela de Cordero con Lucehe or a Lamb’s Stew with Seaweed, while a bus in the other direction will take you to Chonchi known for the freshest salmon (fact: almost 50% of Chile’s salmon industry comes from this region), and lastly is a small island, Chelin, where smoking mussels and other seafood takes center stage.
(The two types of mussels in the mix; even though the one on top doesn’t have the familial orange we are used to in the States, it’s just as good)
(Picoroco prepared; the outer white is the fat, followed by white flesh, and then the guts in the center which are discarded.)
(Piure hanging in the market, looking enticing as ever. I was suggested by the lady to eat it fresh with lemon. It definitely wasn’t for me, but was then suggested its a bit milder used in a stew so I will give it a second try, maybe. Piure is best explained by a short story in which I tried to ask the lady selling it what is was: I asked her if it was an animal or vegetable. She replied it’s a vegetable. I give it a try, definitely isn’t a vegetable. I look to the internet and it turns out it’s a Tunicate—yes, you don’t know what that is either—which is a filter feeding “mass of organs” that is born a male, becomes hermaphroditic at puberty, and reproduces by tossing sperm and eggs into the water, in a fashion I imagine to be like a kid running through open plains yelling “Weeeee”. Except that Tunicates don’t have legs. Thank you Wikipedia. )
(One of my new BFFs, displaying fresh Merluza and Salmon.)
At this point, by tasting and learning all the above, my culinary exposure has expanded more than I had thought possible considering the size of this island—picoroco came as the biggest surprise, while piure was the only thing that came out of my mouth faster than it went in. Along with the seafood, interspersed within this island are between 250-400 varieties of potatoes, which form the basis for milcao (potato pancake), chapalele (potato dumplings), and papa rellena (stuffed potatoes). And to round out the list, is Licor de Oro, a Chiloton moonshine, and chochoca, a bread grilled on a giant rotating metal wheels.
“…a distinct enclave, linked more to the sea than the continent, a fragile society with a strong sense of solidarity and a deep territorial attachment,” – Renato Cárdenas, Director of the Chiloé archive at the National Library.
Before I share my experience with Curanto, let’s take a step back to the isolation that led to Chiloton cuisine. The two earliest influences to note are the Spanish colonials in the 1500’s and the Jesuits in the 1700’s. The later led to the development of the churches that is spread through the islands, while it is the assimilation of the former group that led the island to actually side with Spain during Chilean Independence. This defiance led to a period of independence and isolation from the rest of the country; Chiloe was the last area to be annexed.
Myths play an important role, in an already superstitious country. The most popular is Trauco, a short dude with a hat made of wooden sticks, who can attract and “make love to” anyone he pleases. There’s also Pincoya, a sexy mermaid/water spirit, who embodies the bounty (or lack of) of seafood. When looking out into the sea she represents a good year, looking away or towards you, which is usually the case, means bad times are ahead.
There’s a surprisingly ominous, negative theme in these legends.
Technique: Trapping moisture with heat to cooking over a longer period of time
Where: Outdoors, in the ground
Meats/Ingredients: A mix of vegetables and meats (seafood and land-based) together along with potatoes
Tourism is still picking up in Chiloe, and despite Curanto being the most advertised gastro-affair on this island, it’s been difficult to find an opportunity to experience a Curanto, even through package tours—Curanto is similar to Asado in that aspect, usually reserved for special occasions or friends and family events. Curanto is a Chilean speciality that is said to have originated in Chiloe—but at the same time, shares similarities with the Polynesian and Pacific Island techniques of Hangi or Umu: by trapping a variety of meats and sides on top of a fire, you are indirectly and slowly cooking your ingredients to perfection.
I was persistent for this opportunity, and with the help of Sebastian at Palafito Waiwen, we were able to find Ema. Ema, the kindest soul I’ve met on tshis trip, who agreed to spend a day with me at her Fogon to learn about Curanto and the cuisine of the island; this experience cost me 3 kgs of mussels and clams which we then proceeded to eat as part of the Curanto.
The original technique, the one I traveled here to learn, is Curanto en Hoyo.
1. Start with digging a whole, roughly 1 foot deep, and start a fire. I’d reccomend using lena or wood instead of coals due to the proximity to the food, as well as, since smoke is crucial we don’t want any chance of foul odors to be hanging out with our food for the next hour.
2. As the fire starts roaring, signaled by the wood turning into red coals, create a platform directly on top of the fire using large rocks.
3. Give or take 20 minutes later, your rocks should be heating up, and now its time to add cleaned mariscos — choritos, cholgas, almenas (three different types pictured in order below)
4. On top of which, we are going to layer in our meats — pollo (chicken; salted before), longaniza (sausage), and costillar de cerdo ahumado (smoked pig ribs; salted before) — as well as some whole potatoes.
5. Now, using Pangi, create a layer of leaves neatly tucked in to start trapping the heat on top of the meats.
6. Then, on top of the leaf layer, we are going to add our handmade milcao and chapalele (recipes below).
7. And lastly, we create another layer of leaves, and then cover our entire pit with a tarp weighed down with rocks. Wait for an hour and dig in. Alternatively, it is also possible to dig a deeper whole, cover with cloth, and then cover with the dug out dirt.
Curanto en Olla is the more practical, not as cool brother of En Hoyo utilizing a conventional oven to perform the same task. The major difference between the two techniques is that En Olla is more jugoso or juicy with a stock (codillo) that retains the juices from the seafood. En Hoyo will have that unique taste that is produced from the juices dropping into the fire creating new aromas and flavors that are sent back into your food.
1. Start with your stock: garlic, onions, red chili.
2. Add your cleaned mariscos — choritos, cholgas, almenas
3. Add your meats — pollo (chicken; salted before), longaniza (sausage), and costillar de cerdo ahumado (smoked pig ribs; salted before)
4. Add a cup of white wine and water and then create a layer using pangi. Same as above we are going to then layer in the milcao and chapalele before closing off the pot, covering with the lid, and cooking for an hour.
Milcao – think potato pancake; in a Curanto this is usually steamed but it can be grilled, baked, etc.
1 part shredded uncooked potato, squeezed within a cloth to remove all moisture
1 part boiled shredded potato
Chicharrones, or Fried Pork Fatback or Rinds
Manteca, or Lard
Chuno Flour, or Potato Starch
Combine ingredients and make palm sized patties.
Champalele – think potato dumpling; in a Curanto this is usually steamed but it can be grilled, baked, etc.
Boiled shredded potatoes
Combine and knead into a dough, make palm sized patties.
Topping – the last part of the Curanto is a simple topping of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, garlic, red pepper, lemon and salt mixed together.
Stocks and Seaweed
A lot of my culinary influence comes from Japanese cuisine which makes hefty use of seaweed from stocks to toppings. I was fascinated to find cousins to the illustrious konbu in the Castro market as well: Chochayuyo (first picture below) and Luche (second picture below). Chochayuyo is most commonly used after a period of soaking and then used to start off a stew for a salty sea flavor and smell (similar to konbu in use). Luche on the other hand is used for more of an ingredient itself—after soaking it can be used in stews and soups, or dry can be a topping (similar to Nori in use).
Smoking the various seafoods, especially piuere and mussels, is another way of not only preserving ingredients, but also adding a new flavor dimension. In the picture above, you can see various smoked seafoods that are used to start stocks and stews as well.
A popular dish here which makes use of Luche is Cazuela de Luche Con Cordero, or Lamb Stew with Seaweed. You start with a Lamb based broth and build it with Luche, Rice, Vegetables, and Lamb meat. It’s a version of Surf n Turf I can definitely get with.
Honorable Mention: Concado
A lastly, another popular dish here is Concado, which makes great use of the fresh supply of Salmon coming to this island.
The picture above looks like a simple grilled salmon, but if you take a closer look below, you will see that a sandwhich was made between two fillets of Salmon with tomatoes, cheese, sausage, and herbs. Delish. Meat based buns are the best types of buns.
Starting on this journey, I was immediately on the lookout for cuisines and cultures that would resonate with me and become influences for me down the road—Chiloe and the cuisine here has forever ranked high on that list.