Chilean cuisine is little known outside the country, and for good reason. Only there is it possible to appreciate the freshness of the produce, the variety of seafood harvested from a long coast, the regional specialties and the excellent wines.
If a trip isn’t in the offing, the best alternative is to read Daniel Joelson’s book, “Tasting Chile” (Hippocrene, 2004). It’s packed with information about food, restaurants, customs and history, making it a travel guide as well as a cookbook.
Married to a Chilean, Joelson has traveled up and down the long skinny country. To find traditional recipes, he sought out home cooks and small restaurants in out of the way places, avoiding Santiago’s international cuisine.
The recipes that I’ve tried were delicious, and unusual. I’ve never seen anything like his salad of tuna and giant white corn, a variety that grows in northern Chile.
Ajiaco, a beef soup with chiles, is credited to Isabel Mansilla, a onetime fishmonger who opened a restaurant in Puerto Varas. Like much Chilean food, ajiaco is simple and hearty. For Joelson, it was “the perfect tonic to a frigid winter day in the Chilean south.”
There are recipes for pebre, the spicy tomato salsa that is on every Chilean table; for empanadas, which are as well-liked in Chile as in Argentina; for cazuela, which is a meat and vegetable stew that originated in Spain; for pastel de choclo, the corn-topped meat pie that is also popular in Peru, and many other dishes.
Wine suggestions accompany the recipes, and the book ends with a chapter that provides contact information for Chilean wineries.
I learned about “Tasting Chile” after a trip to Santiago, and it has become one of my favorites. I like the warm way Joelson writes and the intriguing bits of local color that accompany the recipes.
Joelson has also written “Chilenismos” (Hippocrene 2004), a dictionary and phrasebook that focuses on Chile’s unique Spanish. The cuisine has its own terminology, and this is explained in “Tasting Chile.” Malaya is a cut of beef, for example, not the Malay peninsula. And pino isn’t a pine tree. It’s the most common filling for empanadas—ground beef, onions and olives.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, cut in julienne strips
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small red bell pepper, cut in julienne strips
1 pound boneless stewing beef, cut in 2x1-inch rectangular pieces
8 cups water
1 ½ pounds boiling potatoes, cut like fat French fries (about 5x1 inches)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 medium dried hot chile, cut in thin strips, or ¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, plus additional hot pepper to taste
1 beef bouillon cube
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion, garlic and bell pepper and cook for 5 to 7 minutes or until the onion is translucent
Remove the vegetables from the pot. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and heat over medium high heat. Add the beef and salt to taste. Brown the meat on all sides and cook until any liquid evaporates.
Return the vegetables to the pot and add the water, potatoes, oregano, hot chile and bouillon cube. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 25 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Adjust the flavor by adding additional salt and hot pepper.
Just before removing the soup from the heat, add the eggs and mix thoroughly. Sprinkle the parsley over the soup and serve at once.
Makes 4 servings.
2 cups giant white corn (or precooked Mexican nixtamal)
1 raw beef bone
¾ cup finely chopped green onions
2 cans, totaling 12 to 14 ounces, tuna in vegetable oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1½ tablespoons lemon juice
If using dried giant white corn, it must be soaked overnight. If using precooked nixtamal, it does not need to be soaked.
Boil the soaked corn in 6 cups water with the beef bone, adding water when necessary to fully submerge the corn. When the kernels are tender and begin to break open, after about 1 hour and 15 minutes, strain and discard the bone. Nixtamal will be tender in about 1 hour.
Combine the drained hot corn with the green onions and tuna, including its oil. Mix in the parsley, lemon juice and salt to taste. Chill, then serve.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.