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: 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
Albacora: 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
Corvina: Sea bass
Salmon: Salmon (duh)
Pejerrey: 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.
Erizo: Sea urchin
Machas: 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.
Picoroco: 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:
Jaiba: Small crab
Centolla: King crab
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.
Humitas: 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.
Chorillana: 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.
Cazuela 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...