The Traditional Diet of Chile
“La paila marina es muy delicioso!” Photo courtesy of Arikah.net
This week we’ll just take a small step west from Argentina to check out the cuisine of Chile, spanning about half of the west coast of South America.
History of Chile:
Chile is a very long, thin country wedged between the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Andes Mountains on the east. Running nearly 3000 miles north to south, yet averaging only about 120 miles wide, Chile has a diverse range of climates, much like Argentina. Chile lies on the Nazca Plate, a continental plate that is driving under the South American Plate, causing the formation of numerous mountain ranges, most notably the Andes. In fact, “about 80 percent of the land in Chile is made up of mountains of some form or other. Most Chileans live near or on these mountains.”(1) The other major mountain range in the country is the Cordillera de la Costa (Chilean Coast Range), running to the west of the Andes and forming the western edge of the Chilean Central Valley. Finally, Chile lays claim to some of the islands of Polynesia, most notably Easter Island, home of the incredible Moai statues. Chile also has some claim to areas of Antarctica.
We’re going to focus on the mainland of Chile. The Polynesian islands will be covered in later articles. And just to go ahead and knock out the cuisine of Antarctica, the only known permanent inhabitants of the region, some 15 or so species of penguins, eat krill, fish, squid, and octopus.
Currently presumed to be one of the last areas of the Americas to be populated, Chile was settled by Native Americans some 10,000 years ago. Through slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting, these indigenous tribes took advantage of Chile’s rich, fertile valleys and coastal regions. The Incan Empire briefly expanded into what is today northern Chile, but as we’ll see later, this land’s barrenness kept them from expanding to any great degree. Unfortunately for the natives, the Europeans came calling in the early 1500s. Ferdinand Magellan, of Strait of Magellan fame, first spotted the land in 1520. In the 1540s, Spaniards moved in from Peru with the intent to conquer, controlling the area until the 1800s when Chile achieved independence. As we’ll now see, Spanish influence on the indigenous populations has combined with later French, German, and Italian influence to produce what became Chile’s national cuisine.
Running some food availability numbers from an article on Scielo.cl(2), it looks like the Chilean diet (as of 1993-1995) is about 68% carbohydrate and unfortunately, most of that is in the form of grains, to the tune of 41% of total caloric intake. Animal foods contribute only 19% of the daily calories, 1/3 of that being dairy products. Which means that perhaps about 20% of the diet is fat, assuming that possibly half of those animal foods are composed of fat while the rest is protein. In the last 40 years, grain intake has nearly doubled, obviously a detriment to maintaining a whole foods-based diet.
An unfortunate change for Chile is that the government is adopting/has adopted a national food pyramid. Take a look and tell me if that resembles anything you’ve seen before. (“Diario” closely translates to “daily,” “semanal” to “weekly,” and “ocasional” to “occasional”. See that they are promoting only weekly consumption of fish, poultry, eggs, and legumes, while promoting daily consumption of grains and potatoes. To their credit, they do include fruits and vegetables daily, but apparently the average Chilean hasn’t been listening as produce consumption is only 6% of the daily caloric intake.)
So the part that we’re most interested in is the animal protein and the fruit and vegetable intake. Looking first at the breakdown of animal products, we have 7.6% (of total caloric availability) as red meat, 3% as poultry, 2% as fish, and 6.2% as dairy. For those of us that avoid dairy, that doesn’t leave a plethora of options. I would have expected a higher seafood intake given that every citizen of the country is relatively close to the ocean, but it seems Chileans eat tons of seafood in restaurants and relatively little at home.
Meat is often served grilled, or asado, as in Argentina and covered in pebre, a condiment similar to Mexican salsa. Lamb, beef, and pork are the most common meats, chicken being considered inferior, though it too is consumed. When it comes to fish, there is a grand variety due to the range of climates available along the coast. There’s the Patagonian Toothfish, more commonly known as Chilean Sea Bass, along with salmon, mussels, clams, oysters, and urchins. And let’s not forget lobster, king crab, eel, abalone, calamari, scallops, octopus, hake, sole, piure, barnacles, and tuna.
Some sites say that Chilean food is “simple.” Frommer’s takes it a step further(3):
This is not to say that the food is mediocre, it’s just that despite the bounty of wonderful ingredients at hand such as shellfish and fish, vegetables and exotic fruits, Chilean food lacks creativity.
Okay, so the food isn’t all that extravagant. Chilean dishes often feature lots of grains, a few vegetables and relatively little meat. There is the soup known as cazuela, in which large pieces of beef or chicken (sometimes pork or turkey also) are simmered with corn, pumpkin, potatoes, and other vegetables and seasonings. Pastel de choclo is a casserole of beef, chicken, olives, and vegetables, covered in a corn crust. Chile has its own version of ceviche, using halibut or toothfish, with lime juice and grapefruit as the citrus.
Street cart vendors serve what are known as anticuchos, small grilled skewers of meat marinated in vinegar and spices; cow heart is a common meat for anticucho. Longaniza is a type of sausage popular in Chile, popular enough that the city of Chillan nicknamed its football team “la longaniza mecanica”. And then there’s charquican, a stew of potatoes, green beans, corn, and small pieces of horse meat, topped with a fried egg. Horse meat is also made into charqui, or jerky. I imagine some of you are turning your nose up at the thought of eating Secretariat (and any of my fellow Kentuckians are probably especially appalled given our love of horses here), but I would bet it tastes much like any other very muscular red meat. And of course there are the ubiquitous variations of bread and pastries, like empanadas.
Chiloe Island features a pit roasted dish called curanto. There’s no real recipe, but it does feature shellfish, various meats, vegetables, potatoes, and squashes layered with nalca, cabbage, or fig leaves and covered with dirt and wet sacks to create a pressure cooker. This can also be cooked in a large pot or pressure cooker, though it is called “pulmay” when cooked this way.
Most of the vegetable production in Chile occurs in the Central Valley between the Coast Range and the Andes. In the south, cold weather and heavy rainfall makes vegetable growth difficult, necessitating the use of greenhouses. Most rural households have their own greenhouse. Due to Patagonia’s extreme southerly locale, fruits and vegetables are not prevalent, and those that are available are low quality and expensive. When it comes to side dishes:(3)
Most restaurants do not serve vegetables as a side dish, however you can order just about any kind of vegetable in a salad, including beets, corn, green beans, and so on. The avocado, called palta, is ubiquitous, well loved, and cheap, as are the tomato and onion, both of which are combined to form an ensalada chilena.
Chileans also know how to eat some things that are exquisitely unhealthful.(4)
The single most popular food is a bit less healthy, el completo. This is a traditional hot dog in a bun topped with dripping piles of mayonnaise, ketchup, guacamole and tomatoes. It is the Chilean equivalent to the American peanut butter and jelly or the Australian vegemite sandwich.
Chileans love their mayonnaise, being the third largest consumer per capita worldwide.(5) Speaking of unhealthful foods, I haven’t even mentioned all of the desserts that are consumed after most lunches and dinners. Nor the plethora of sugary beverages available.
The Chilean eating schedule looks to be much like other Latin American countries, with three or four meals, the largest one being lunch in the early afternoon. Much like Argentina, it’s hard to find a restaurant open before 8pm as dinner is typically taken late, usually around 9:30 or 10 at home. Between this early afternoon lunch and late evening dinner is the “once” (pronounced as the Spanish word for “eleven” not the English word for “one time”), generally a cup of tea and a roll with jam, a light sandwich, or the full monty of “rich, sugary cakes, toasted cheese sandwiches, juice, ice cream, and more”.(3)
As you would expect from a country that is 10 times as “tall” as it is “wide” (2880 miles by 265 miles), there are some regional variations in cuisine and agriculture. Typically, Chile is divided into five areas: Far North, Near North, Central, South, and Far South.
The Far North is home to the Atacama Desert, the driest non-Arctic place on Earth. This aridity is why the Incas had such difficulty establishing a foothold in the Chilean lands. Tropical fruits and many kinds of vegetables grow in the plateau of the Andes where substantial rainfall occurs during the summer, but little else grows in this region and there are only a few of these oases available. In terms of temperature, it isn’t especially hot, with temperatures ranging from an average of about 57 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 69 degrees in summer. The indigienous Aymaras living in the Puna highlands raise llamas and alpacas.
The Near North has slightly cooler temperatures, ranging from 53 to 65 degrees, and is semi-arid, receiving only about 1 inch of rain during the winter months and little the rest of the year. Deep valleys are quite conducive to raising cattle and growing fruit, but outside of these river valleys, the low volume of rainfall limits production. Grapes, avocados, olives, and papayas grow well here, but farming is heavily dependent on irrigation.
Moving to Central Chile, we find a climate that is very similar to the Mediterranean. The Coast Range begins in this area, producing the agriculturally rich Central Valley. Around Santiago, loads of fruits are grown, including the best Chilean wine grapes. You’ll probably find some of the berries grown in this region in your local Whole Foods.
The South is one of the rainiest areas of the world, receiving an average of 100 inches of rain each year. The north section of this region are used heavily for cattle rearing, mainly for dairy products. Along with beef and dairy cows, there are pig, sheep, and horse farms. Berries grow very well in the area, many of which are exported, and wheat is also grown here, giving part of the northern region the nickname “Chile’s granary” until recent times. And recently, freshwater farming of fish has started, focusing mostly on trout and salmon, due to the large supply of clean freshwater. Unfortunately, human encroachment into this wilderness has decimated many of the native species.
Finally, there’s the Far South, the cold region of the country. As mentioned previously, little in the way of produce is grown in this region, though the north does receive over 115 inches of rain per year. Overall, this is a chilly, wet region where little of vegetation is grown, though sheep are reared here. Beyond sheep, most of the agriculture here is focused on fish and trees.
As you can see, the Central and South regions of Chile are the heavy lifters in terms of food production for the country. The fertile valley between the two mountain ranges coupled with a very conducive climate provides an optimal environment for fruit and animal production.
The Chilean diet is very heavy on the starch and other carbohydrates, over 40% of the calories coming from grains alone, with sugar contributing an additional 16% of calories. My first thought when seeing the very high carbohydrate intake was in relation to obesity rates in Chile. A bit of digging came up with some unsurprising results. While not as bad as here in the States, the numbers are telling, though it’s obviously impossible to pin all the blame on diet (6):
In preschool children controlled at primary health clinics, obesity prevalence is 8.2%; in the same group attending day-care centers belonging to the National Day Care Association (JUNJI), this rate is 10.6%. The prevalence varies according to age; 6% in 2 to 3 years old, 11% in 3 to 4 years old, and 14% in the 4 to 5 years old category. Among school children in first grade, obesity prevalence is presently 18.5%. In adolescents, obesity has also increased markedly, from 12% in 1987 to 32.6% in 2004. For adults, the National Health Survey of 2003 showed that obesity prevalence was 22%, varying according to gender and educational level.
The exotic fruits found in Chile are likely not found in markets in the United States and I would surmise are also not available in European markets. That leaves us with vegetables, of which there are precious few grown or consumed in the country.
It seems that if one were to travel to Chile, it would be quite difficult to avoid grains completely. They are simply too prevalent. However, Chile has access to some excellent seafood, which is a healthful inclusion in the diet. The typical meats that US citizens are accustomed to – beef, pork, and chicken – are available and from what I’ve gathered, they are raised properly, on pasture, rather than in CAFOs where they are force-fed corn, soy, and animal remnants. You could also expand your horizons with some more “exotic” meats like llama, sheep, and horse.
If cooking Chilean food at home and striving to fit it into a Paleo framework, there will be a good bit of substitution needed. Potatoes are often coupled with corn and/or wheat, tossed with a few vegetables, and a small serving of meat. I managed to scrounge up a few recipes below that should require no modification or only substitution/elimination of one ingredient to fit the bill. It also wouldn’t be outlandish to up the protein and fat content of a dish while maintaining the Chilean flavor profile.
Chile has a cornucopia of exotic fruits that are unheard of here in the States.
- Cherimoya – aka Custard Apple
- Tuna – aka Cactus Fruit
- Pepino Dulce – “a sweet pepper that tastes somewhat like melon”(3)
- Membrillo – aka Quince
A Few Recipes:
Like Argentina, finding recipes proved to be difficult. Unlike Argentina, it’s because so many are made with some form of grain, potatoes, or both rather than because they love grilling meat like there’s no tomorrow.
Meat and Such
- Bistec a lo Pobre – Beefsteak with eggs and fried onions (and fried potatoes), Recipe (scroll down)
- Gingered Shrimp Skillet – Shrimp and grapes with ginger, Recipe
- Sea Bass with Nectarine Salsa – Name says it all, Recipe
- Seafood Filling for Empanaditas – This is a pastry filling, but sounds good on its own, Recipe
- Paila marina – A seafood stew, Recipe
Sides, Appetizers, Soups, and Salads
- Pebre – “a Chilean condiment made of cilantro, chopped onion, chopped tomato, olive oil, garlic and often ground or pureed spicy aji peppers,” Recipe
- Chanco en Piedra – A Chilean seasoning, Recipe
- Avocado and Zucchini Soup – Sub coconut milk for the yogurt and this one’s good to go, Recipe
- Ensalada Chilena – A tomato and onion salad, Recipe
Tune in next time as we explore the diverse cuisine of Chile’s northern neighbor, Peru. I think we’ll be much happier with what’s discovered there.
(1) Geography of Chile – Wikipedia
(2) Is the Chilean Diet a Mediterranean-type Diet?
(3) Chile Food and Drink – Frommer’s
(4) Typical Food of Chile
(5) Mayonnaise – Wikipedia
(6) Promotion of Health and Quality of Life in Chile: A Policy with New Challenges