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Food and drink in Chile

Thanks to Chile’s 4,000-km long shoreline and fertile farmland, the food in Chile boasts an extraordinarily wide selection of seafood and fresh produce. The blend of native staples like corn, potatoes and beans with European influences, notably German and Spanish cuisine, has produced a very diverse gastronomy. While it may not be particularly spicy or refined, food in Chile will keep budget and mid-range travelers alike satisfied, especially those with a sweet tooth.

Chilean Meals

Chilean breakfast (desayuno) is usually a simple affair, with coffee or tea accompanying bread rolls or toast with jam, cheese or avocado. Chilean lunch (almuerzo), eaten around 1 or 2 pm, is the heartiest meal of the day and can be tucked away cheaply in a comedor offering a set meal (menú del día). This will usually comprise a cazuela, a thickish broth made from meat, usually chicken or beef, cooked with vegetables (often potato or pumpkin), then a main a dish of meat with veggies, followed by dessert. A snack similar to English tea and deceptively called once (eleven) is sometimes served in the late afternoon. Chilean dinner (cena) is a family occasion, pretty similar to lunch in terms of dishes, and eaten around 9 pm.

Chilean Seafood

Abalones, razor clams, mussels, spider crabs, oysters, octopus, conger eels, salmon, corbinas and sole are among the wealth of seafood in Chile. Fish is fried or cooked in a thick chowder (caldillo). Shellfish are often prepared raw in a delicious cold marinade of lemon juice, spiced with cilantro, and known as ceviche. You can also try curanto, the typical dish of the island of Chiloé, also available throughout most of the southern coast and on Easter Island. It is a kind of stew with shellfish, pork, potatoes, potato bread and other vegetables all cooked together, traditionally in a hole in the ground, now more commonly in a pressure cooker. If you are lucky enough to visit Easter Island, you can sample lobster (langosta) among other seafood dishes.

Meat in Chile

Carnivores are sure to enjoy Chilean food, meat being such a regular feature, and usually a very tasty one too. Beef asados (barbecues) are as good as the Argentine ones; and mixed grilled meats (parilladas) often include lamb and goat in Patagonia. Pork and chicken (which you will often find referred to as ave or poultry) appear in soups or on street grills.

Vegetarians in Chile will have a hard time finding satisfying meals, since most Chilean foods include meat. However, some restaurants in Santiago or touristy areas may serve meat-free dishes like omelets or pizzas. It is best to always ask about any form of animal protein in the dish before ordering, because the word carne usually means beef and will not be understood as including pork or chicken.

Chilean Snacks

The most popular snack in Chile is the empanada, a fried or baked turnover filled with pino, a mixture of meat, onions, raisins, olives, hard-boiled eggs and shortening, or with cheese. Sweet empanadas, filled with apples, can also be had just about everywhere. Other ubiquitous snacks are humitas (similar to Mexican tamales), a Native American cornmeal dish cooked in corn husks, which can be sweet or savory, and sopaipilla, a flour and pumpkin fried tortilla. Various sorts of breads, like sliced loaves or marraqueta buns, are sold in the many bakeries (panaderías). Restaurants in Chile will sometimes accompany a basket of bread with pebre, a spicy sauce made with tomato, hot pepper, onion and cilantro.

Vegetables and Fruit in Chile

Staple Chilean vegetables include tomatoes (the main ingredient of the basic ensalada chilena), beans (porotos), squash, lentils, eggplant, lettuce and lots of potatoes. Travelers will also be familiar with most of the fruits grown in the temperate climate of Chile: apples, pears, oranges, peaches, plums, watermelon, bananas and the like. These are great eaten as such (and washed carefully of course) but also as freshly squeezed juices (jugo natural or exprimido). If the juice is being prepared in front of you, you may want to check they are not heavy-handed with the sugar, which is often the case.

Chilean Desserts

Anyone with a sugar craving is sure to be satisfied with Chilean desserts, as cookies (golosinas) and cakes (pasteles) come aplenty. Alfajores are cookies glazed with sugar or chocolate and sometimes stuffed with manjar, a paste of caramelized condensed milk (also known as dulce de leche) – the overly sweet paste can also be spooned away in its pure form. Another typical dessert in Chile that is worth trying is mote con huesillos, a soupy mixture of syrup, dried peaches and cooked wheat. Pumpkin sopaipillas can also be eaten as a sweet treat. Finally, if your calorie-meter has not exploded yet, you can indulge in a solid strudel while visiting the German-influenced Lake District.

Chilean Drinks

Water comes sparkling (con gas) or still (sin gas); you will usually be asked which you prefer. Soft drinks can be found everywhere in Chile and you will notice that carbonated drinks like Coca-Cola can be purchased in every conceivable size, from half-liter to gallon. Freshly squeezed and industrial fruit juices, coffee, black tea and herbal infusions (usually chamomile, manzanilla) are largely available, though amateurs of real java will be disappointed, since caffeine usually comes in the form of instant Nescafe. Ask for café negro (black) or café cortado (with milk); you may also be able to get a cappuccino in the touristy areas. Imported yerba mate, the bitter, stimulating Argentine infusion, is easy to find, especially in Patagonia.

In Chile's alcohol department, there are some local beers, the most common being Cristal and Escudo, both lagers, but wine is the star beverage in Chile. Once considered cheap, fruity tipples, Chilean wines have greatly improved in quality. There are excellent red wines to be sampled, with cabernet sauvignon and merlot dominating among vino tinto, and some whites made from sauvignon blanc also fare pretty well (see our Chilean wines page for more info). Pisco, a spirit distilled from grapes and similar to brandy, is also a favorite Chilean drink. It is often sipped for aperitivo as pisco sour, a cocktail made with lemon or lime juice, egg white, syrup and bitter, but some clubbers knock back piscolas, pisco mixed with Coca-Cola. Another hard Chilean liquor you may find is chicha, made from fermented maize or fruit, usually apples or grapes, and drunk during National Day celebrations.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Chile: Chumbeques, Culinary vocabulary, La Serena Restaurants Overview, The Pisco Controversy and How to Eat a Crudo.

20 Feb 2009

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