Corrugated City

Monday 11 June 2007

Food in Chile

Chile has always had a bad rep when it comes to decent food. In general, the food here is not spectacular and is pretty bland. Compared to Peruvian or Mexican food or the Carribean Latin American countries' cuisine it isn't up to much.

However, i don't think the food here deserves such a bad reputation. I admit that when i first arrived in Chile i was distinctly underwhelmed with the dining options here. I'd just arrived from Argentina, having gorged myself on spectacular beef every day for 3 weeks and i expected something similar in Chile. Eating out at decent restaurants was not very thrilling. That's changed a lot in the last three years. International cuisine (and by that i mean the French and Italian based food that is served up in pretty much every restaurant in the world that doesn't specialise in a particular ethnic cuisine) in proper restaurants is now the best i've had in South America. It's not Chilean food, per se, but it's decent restaurant food that would stand up in most European countries and it's pretty decent value. Washed down with a good Cabernet Sauvignon and you can't go wrong.

Having lived in Buenos Aires for nigh on 3 years i cannot say the same about Argentine cuisine. With the exception of the quite divine beef, fancy restaurants in Argentina serve up complete rubbish disguised as cocina de autor. This basically means that the chef takes a perfectly good french or italian recipe and adds his own, personal, 'touch' The result is almost always pants. The worst meal i've had in my life was in Mendoza at a pricey restaurant with cocina de autor. With the exception of Azema in Buenos Aires (Carranza 1875), i found international cuisine in Argentina to be of the worst quality i've had in any part of the world. Cambodia included. It's all about style in Argentine 'nice' restaurants and to hell with serving up edible food. In Buenos Aires, give me a hole in the wall parilla any day of the week and i'm happy. In the north of Argentina, the food is very different and more 'Andean'-more stews, casseroles and corn based foods. Some people love locro, a stew of pork, pork fat, peas, corn and other goodies. Personally i can't stand the stuff and refer it it as a 'big bowl of bile', but that's just me. Otherwise, northern Argentine food is pretty tasty. So, in Argentina, stick to steak (and anything else that can be carved or power-hosed off a cow)-it's the best in the world.

On the other hand, in Chile the chefs have a bit more discipline. If they're cooking French food, they'll take a recipe from France and cook it. No trying to improve it. So the result is pretty decent French food. The same with Italian food. The same with the quite delicious Peruvian food that's so popular here. That's how it should be done-cooked to the original recipe.

One thing that Chile does particularly well is sea-food. Seeing as Chile has thousands of miles of coastline you would expect this. In Chile, anything that swims, crawls or slithers is eaten. I'm not a huge fan of shell-fish but i do like white sea-fish. There's an array of fish available-here are a few of the most common:

Congrio: Conger eel-a firm, fleshy white fish

: reineta apparently doesn't exist outside of Chilean waters, so there's no English name for it. It's another white fish, less fleshy but with a little more flavour than congrio

: despite every guide book and dictionary stating that this is a small, Tuna like fish, in Chile albacora is Swordfish. Delicious when just a little under-cooked

: Sole

: Sea bass

: Hake

: Salmon (duh)

: Small, white fish usually eaten fried and whole

Most fish is cooked a la plancha (on a hot plate) and can be jazzed up by asking a la mantequilla or al ajillo (with butter or with garlic). I'm a garlic fan.

Now if you do like those slimy, smelly bits of gunk that are to be found in shells, here's a list of what you might find in chile.

Almejas: Clams

: Abalone

: Mussels

: Oysters

: Sea urchin

: Scallops

: These are commonly translated as Razor Clams. The problem is that they're not razor clams. I don't know what they are, maybe another type of clam. If i actually liked them, i might try to find out. As it is, you'll just have to order them and see what you think.

: Giant barnacle with a big claw (****someone i know once exclaimed loudly at a party that "me encanta el picorico", thinking she was saying how much she liked the barnacle. In reality, she had just shouted, "I love Hot Cock". Try not to make the same mistake. It doesn't make for a good impression****)

Other ocean going critters are:

Langosta: Lobster
Jaiba: Small crab
Centolla: King crab
Camarones: Prawns

Ceviche is a sea-food dish that involves raw fish and other stuff from the sea being marinaded in lemon juice. The citric acid cooks the fish. Some people love it. I don't. Too acid for me.

Paila marina is a sea food stew. Too fishy for me...

As for other typical food in Chile-you've got the basics that i love. Pollo/carne al jugo con arroz o puré which is slow braised chicken or beef in its own juices with either rice or mashed potatoes.

: like a tamale, with mashed sweet corn and basil steamed in corn leaf.

Pastel de choclo
: the same as a humita but with minced meat underneath the corn.

Chilean empanadas
: Empanadas in most countries are like Cornish Pasties-baked, savoury pastries with mince meat, or chicken, or ham and cheese. In Chile, this type exists but they also do deep fried empanadas. Really, really bad for you but very, very good. Sea food and cheese ones are the favourites.

: This is a speciality of Valparaiso, allegedly first being served up in J Cruz in Valpo. it consists of strips of beef, onions and chips all fried together with a few eggs thrown in for good measure. It's a heart attack on a plate. And it goes well with beer.

hmmm...cazuela...a chicken or beef water based broth (i prefer the chicken) with pumpkin, potatoes, carrots, celery, over-cooked rice, onions and corn on the cob. On a cold winter's day, there nothing quite like it.

The reason people think so little of Chilean food is that probably the most popular type of cheap, fast food is the hot-dog. A completo is the hot dog with chutcrut, tomato, mayo and ketchup or the italiano which is with avocado, tomato and mayo (as is the colours of the Italian flag). Not very inspiring but it's what most people are exposed to when looking for cheap food on the streets of Chile.

Other fast food options would be the churrasco, a thin beef sandwich or the lomito, the same thing but with pork.

Head south and you get German food which is really good. Head north and you see more Peruvian food. Also good.

Try to avoid Chinese food in Chile. Despite there being 100s of chinese restaurants in chile run by real chinese people who speak chinese, the food they serve up is not chinese. Chop suey and variations on a theme is the best you can hope for and poor quality at that. I guess that's what the chinese decided chileans would like and they've all stuck together with the plan...and it's not even very cheap.

So there you have it. A summary of Chilean food. I'm sure people will disagree with my assessment of Argentine food and probably Chilean food as well but it's all about opinions and personal tastes isn't it? Happy eating...Buen provecho...


Will Sherman said...

Nice overview, Matt. Re: Argentinean food I'd say, like you say, they really shine at the sitio cualquier, the "whole-in-the-wall parilla". But it's MORE than just parilla, it's milanesa - chicken fried steak, empanadas that come in a stunning variety. In Chile, you're lucky if you have ONE choice with empanadas de pino, composed of tired meat (as I DID see it translated somewhere) boiled egg whites and unpitted olives just waiting for a lawsuit if there were a functional legal system here. In Argentina you get tons of tasty varieties, even empanada de humita which nonchalantly combines TWO of Chile's most chauvinistically-lusted-after specialties. Then they move on to vegetarian, chicken, corn-and-cheese, ham-and-cheese, SWEET dessert empanadas, etc. And in the campo (or an artesian fair in BA) you can find tamales which are also common in California and Mexico (not in Chile), and obviously much better than humitas because they're the same thing but stuffed with tender, scrumptious shredded steak and sauce.

And then there was a tenedor libre in Palermo SOHO in BA that didn't disappoint. Sure, mostly meat, the tenderest veal (or whatever vacío is) but also provolone and full salad bar (and pasta although i didn't get that far), plus fine wine from Mendoza it was 20 bucks for two. Lucky to get a couple soggy sandwiches and malt brews posing as beers for that much in Chile.

Matt said...

Yeah, the thing about Argentina is that you can get good food, in the form of beef in pretty much every cafe and restaurant around. And there's thousands of such places in BA ranging from cheap hole in the wall parillas to upmarket cafes to expensive restaurants. But once you stray away from carne a la parillia things tend to head downhill. You can often get decent bbq'd chicken but i always felt i wasn't getting my money's worth if i wasn't eating steak and all that goes with it (papas provenzal, provelone al orreganato etc Fine dining in Argentina is invariably a disappointment and, honestly, steak does get boring after a while no matter how incredibly tender, juicy and bloody it is...

In Chile, there are decent and very cheap restaurants (see my review of Mastodonte for one such place) but the problem is that there aren't very many to choose from. Whilst in Argentina there'll be at least 1 cafe or restaurant on pretty much every block, in Chile there's simply not the same quantity so it's a bit hit and miss if you've got a decent place nearby.

Fine dining here in Chile is better than Argentina now. When i first arrived in Chile 3 and a half years ago, 'proper' restaurants weren't very good, except the Peruvian ones. Gastronomy, along with many other aspects of Chile and Chilean society, have improved greatly in the time i've been visiting and living in Chile. Peruvian food in Chile is really really good. Puerto Peru on the corner of Condell and Santa Isabel and La Casona de Lima in the Barcelona car park in Santiago are 2 of the best. The Pulpo al olivar in Puerto Peru is nothing short of hot, steamy, passionate tentacly sex. a bit carried away there...

And if you want cheap but really, really good food you have to go to Le Filou de Montpellier here in Valpo. 3 courses and a very decent bottle of wine comes to about 17 lucas for 2. One of the best pizzas in Chile and a pint of Cerveza del Puerto in Allegretto? 4 lucas a head.

As for the empanadas, you should try Entre Masas-there's one in Vina and one in Renaca. They have about 30 varieties of the artery clogging but damn tasty fried versions. Everything from mussels and cheese, cheese and bacon, cheese and prawn, steak and onion, and many more sea-food and meat based empanadas. They are so good. Normal oven baked empanadas are good if you know where to go. Unfortunately, i don't but i've had some really good ones in places i can't remember....there's a place in Ocoa near La Campana that seems to ring a bell (sorry)...

Will Sherman said...

Yeah right I'll remember next time I'm in Reñaca or Viña if I want an empanada.

Actually, to be fair there's a fucking amazing place on Barrio Brasil but it's kinda disguised as an internet café.

I'm no fine diner, and Chile hasn't helped me get no finer. But I do have to say the Crème brûlée at El Torro in Santiago Centro or even better at the Liguria at Tobalaba is Fucking Superb. Liguria's also got Paceña cerveza on tap, a crisp, refreshing lager. And the ceviche at el Toro is to die for.

Check out my take on food in Chile.

Will Sherman said...

Matt you also forgot pastel de jaiva - crab...mush? Not my favorite but definitely tasty.

Matt said...

True..pastel de jaiba...i can't actually think of any better way to describe it than 'crab mush'. Horrible. But then i'm not a great fan of things that come in shells.

Pacena's really good beer. Of course the old rumour is that when the beer is marked for export, the bolivian workers piss on the ones off to Chile...

Will Sherman said...

Pretty tasty altiplano pee!

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

Found your blog after reading your post to Escape Artist - thanks very much for the great article. Chile is one of the places I've been researching as a place to possibly move someday.

On the food issue, how does the availability of groceries/markets stack up. I know there is plenty of seafood, produce from what I've read, but how does fresh beef, chicken, pork, spices, and the like stack up. I do not care about packaged foods. How are costs for food compared to say US or UK? I haven't found a lot of info yet.

I've also been researching Argentina and did find several of their online supermarkets so I could figure out a lot of the availability/costs.

And last, do you know if anyone homebrews in Chile? I found one group in Argentina, but it was just getting started. Grains I imagine you could find, but the yeasts and hops could be a challenge. : )

Thanks again,

Matt said...

Hi Rose,

thanks for commenting...

food costs-raw foods such as fruit and veg are really, really cheap compared to the UK. Beef is also quite a lot cheaper, even imported Argentine beef (muuuuch better quality). Pork is very cheap. Chicken is very expensive for some reason. Free range chicken has only recently become available in the supermarkets and is priced obscenely at us$15 a kilo for thigh meat. Ridiculous.

Imported sauces and such are probably 10-50% more than back in england, not too bad. The most important thing is that you can get real ceylon tea here in chile and imported McVitie's Digestives to go with it. Next to impossible in Argentina.

Homebrewing...not sure about any cllubs here in Chile but he beer here is way better than in Argentina. there are a lot of new microbrews here. Actually, i'm currently consuming them all so i can write a review once i've got through the lot-it's going to take a few days i think.

Overall, food in chile is now cheaper than in Argentina and of better quality. This wasn't the case a couple of years ago but inflation and government interference in the market in argentina has increased costs and reduced quality.

Matt said...

oh, also do a search for "lider" and "jumbo"-the 2 main supermarket chains here in Chile.

Anonymous said...

Hey thanks so much for the reply. One of the funnier things I saw for Argentina was the practice of grinding sugar with all their coffees. I thought surely being in Latin America there must be so much lovely whole bean coffee!

I'll say I love a good cup of tea, and being from America that ought to give you a great laugh.

On a completely off topic subject, I saw your post about trying to figure out how to repair/reproduce your ceiling medallions. I found one reference so far on the inet of a guy and his wife that are doing this unbelievable resto of a victorian home and how he fixed a plaster recreation they had ordered which arrived broken.

"I decided to create a mold from one of the remaining corners. I used a liquid latex. I painted on the latex one layer at a time until it built up to be approx. a half inch thick. Next, I built a small wooden box around it so the latex would retain it's shape. I mixed up some liquid plaster and pored it into the mold. The next day I had a perfect replica of the broken corner. I ground the edge of the medallion and the edge of the piece until they matched and glued it in place. the last step was to mix up some plaster and fill in the seam."

There website is here and if nothing else, the level of detail these folks are putting in to their restoration is staggering. Me thinks they have a pretty fat pocketbook.
To get to the pics of his work on the ceiling medallion add /parlor.htm to the above and click on ceiling medallion. Hope maybe this helps, will keep trolling some of the home repair sites I can think of.

One last off topic question. If someone is like myself and my husband, having absolutely no interest in living in or near a big city, and likes living out, where do you go for that? Once you get out of Valpo or other cities it almost seems like anything out in the countryside or mountains is a planned community - yuck!

Okay one last parting shot, your "hot or nots" are hysterical. I really should not read them at work for fear of laughing out loud.


Matt said...

yep-the sugar in ground coffee thing in Argentina is really strange. You have to buy imported coffee to get it without sugar. mind you, it's hard to get decent ground coffee here in Chile without mortgaging your house...

thanks for the info about the molds-actually, we were watching CSI about 3 weeks ago and they made a mold of a head with...liquid we thought we'd give it a go. Haven't had time to start looking for it yet but once we find some i'll give it a go and post about how it turns out. i'm going to look at that website to see if i can get any more tips off it.

regarding property...there's a lot of raw land available in chile, not just in planned communities. If you plan to live full time then there's no problem. if you're going to be away for any length of time then you need to build a small house and employ a full time caretaker-not expensive and you get 24 hour security.

Actually, some of the planned communities i've seen haven't been all that bad. There are some hideous ones (especially in Mantagua, just north of Vina) but i've seen places where you can get 1 whole hectare, connected to water and electricity and where there are no restrictions about building styles for around us$30,000-plus you get security 24/7. You'd only ever see the neighbours in school holidays.

caposoldador said...

the worst food is the inglish. and to say that the arg food is not good is a nonsense

Matt said...

No, it's an opinion based on having lived in Buenos Aires for 3 years and having eaten in a huge amount of restaurants, both cheap and expensive, all over the city. Take it or leave it.

Did I hurt your feelings?

caposoldador said...

in a country where you have the best meat, the best icecream, one the best wine,great pizza and very good pasta, we are talking about great food.
when you talk about italian, the argentinians are italians themselves.
sea food is also good in mar del plata, and in the south you can eat asado a la cruz.
great food and variety everywheare.
i respect your opinion but i think that argentinian food is by far better than the chilean food.

Matt said...

Beef, yes. Ice cream, yes. Wine, yes to a certain extent.

Pizza? Pasta? Italian food in general? You have got to be joking. Italian food in Argentina is far and away the very worst I have had the misfortune to eat anywhere in the world. It is disgusting and bears no resemblance whatsoever to Italian food from Italy. The pizza is like cardboard, the toppings are terrible. The fresh pasta is average and the pasta sauces truly revolting.

All the Italian tourists and expats I've met who have spent time in Buenos Aires have been completely shocked by the complete lack of real Italian culinary heritage. How did this happen? Millions of first generation Italian immigrants less than 100 years ago and they all forgot how to cook?

As I've already said, apart from the gorgeous beef and one or two specialities from the north, Argentine food is bland, boring and just not very good. There's no variety. There's no spice. It's all way too much processed ham and cheap cheese. There is good food in Argentina but it's the same good food: ie, beef. And no matter how good the beef is, it gets boring eating the same thing all the time.

caposoldador said...


caposoldador said...

food is food my friend , i do not agree with you but... i know people who told me that pizza is not good in italy!! and once in denmark in an italian pizzeria i got a pizza without cheese.
anyway up to here i think that the argentinian food is much better than in almost all the european countries i have been to, specialy england.
sorry matt but for the money i get a kebab in england i get a lomito a la caballo in buenos aires.
one more thing , argentina is very very big and im sure that there are restaurants you have never been to( even myself and i lived there 6 years)

Joel said...

"Chile has always had a bad rep when it comes to decent food. In general, the food here is not spectacular and is pretty bland. Compared to Peruvian or Mexican food or the Carribean Latin American countries' cuisine it isn't up to much."

Agreed. You listed a wide variety of food in Chile (especially seafood), but unfortunately, while it's true there is good variety, they just don't do much with it.

Matt said...

Yeah but they do the basics really well here. And very cheaply as well...

A friend found real thai green curry paste in Vina the other day. Now that was cause for celebration...and a pretty fine green curry.