When I told people I was carving out three days of my South American holiday to spend in Chile, specifically Santiago and Valparaiso, they were confused. Aussies need to pass through Santiago to fly home but no one actually steps out of the airport. One friend even coined Santiago as ‘an irrelevancy’.
Well that made me even more determined to go. After all it’s an entirely different country (from Brazil and Argentina where I’d previously been) which meant new ingredients, cooking styles and traditional dishes. There would have to be something new and delicious for me to eat I reasoned. Plus the country produces pisco and I live on pisco sours.
When I landed in Santiago after a few weeks in luminous Brazil, it was raining and cold. People were burrowed under coats, the sky was grim and the fierce rain forced me to take cabs when I otherwise would always walk. It wasn’t a great start. But once I bought a scarf and started to explore, I soon found my foodie groove.
I easily ate a week’s worth of food in three days and these were my highlights.
If I had to live on one dish for the rest of my life, this would be it. I’ve always loved the zing and wholesomeness of a good ceviche, and appreciate how uncomplicated it is. As a country that’s all coastline, Chile excels in fresh and delicious seafood, including many species of fish you can’t get elsewhere.
I ate ceviche in a little seafood joint in Valparaiso, at a pokey little stall in the fish markets and in a seafood restaurant and every time it was on point. Never too fancy, never overloaded with ingredients, just fresh slivers of fish and maybe prawn, heavy with the weight of the citrus it had soaked up to ‘cook’ the fish, and peppered with chili, garlic, red pepper, red onion and a sprinkling of coriander. Sensational every time.
I have single handedly increased pisco distribution amongst Sydney bars. I’ve learnt that if you badger a bartender enough they will eventually start stocking your favourite spirit and making your favourite cocktail. Of course I didn’t have that problem in Chile as it’s the national tipple.
My favourite pisco bar was Chpe Libre (Chpe coming from a merging of ‘Chile’ and ‘Peru’) which called itself the Républica Independiente del Pisco, i.e. the imaginary diplomatic heart of the pisco regions of Chile and Peru. It therefore served pisco sours made from Chilean and Peruvian pisco, and while people make a fuss about the difference, I struggled to really identify specific flavours. Maybe because of the competing citrus, sugar and egg wash going on in the glass or maybe because I drank too many to really remember!
After spending time in Argentina I thought I’d had my fill of empanadas but it turns out I have a second stomach for them. I also like the Chilean take on this ubiquitous South American hand held food. Their meat version, ‘pino’, isn’t just made with ground beef but is spiked with onions, raisins, black olives and a surprise (to me) of hard-boiled egg, which really elevated the flavour.
I also tried a version with octopus which I had my doubts about but was delicious. A former President of Chile once referred to creating ‘a revolution with the flavour of red wine and the scent of an empanada’, which sounds exactly like a movement I could get behind.
The seafood in general blew me away in Chile, as did the ridiculously low prices. I loved wandering through the Mercardo Central and peering at the interesting marine life, including sea urchins, abalone and razor clams.
In Sydney you will pay $30 for the privilege of having one or two sea urchins daintily adorning your plate. In Santiago (at a very decent restaurant) I paid the equivalent of $10 for a BOWL of sea urchins, locally known as ‘erizo’. It made me feel like I was swimming in Krug. The sea urchins had a rich, creamy texture and a sweet, slightly briny flavor. Perfect with a squeeze of lime and not much else. I still salivate as I think about it.
Pastel de Choclo
My Chilean insider Rodrigo gave me a list of food to try and top of that list was the Pastel de choclo.
Pastel de choclo has been nicknamed the Chilean version of shepherd’s pie as it follows the same construct of a meaty base and carby topping. In this case the base is a mix of meats – mine had ground beef, pulled beef and chicken along with onions, olives and that surprise hard-boiled egg again. Instead of potato mash the topping is a thick layer of creamed corn, usually choclo corn from the Andes.
The result was a sweet and salty attack of flavours and textures that were incredibly good. I especially couldn’t get enough of the corn mash which was caramelised to perfection.
I’m calling it – it was the most delicious thing I ate in South America.
It was also the very last thing I ate in South America before stepping on a 14 hour plane home and I was still full when I arrived. I suspect the portion easily could have fed two people, rather than one greedy Aussie!