Finding Surprise in the Familiar Chilean Food's Unusual Taste Comes from a Blend of Ingredients Known to North Americans. Chile's Cuisine Reveals Its History

By Phyllis Hanes, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 1992 | Go to article overview

Finding Surprise in the Familiar Chilean Food's Unusual Taste Comes from a Blend of Ingredients Known to North Americans. Chile's Cuisine Reveals Its History


Phyllis Hanes, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


COLUMBUS may never have set foot on the west coast of South America, but the Spanish adventurers who followed him and settled on the long skinny coastline of Chile discovered a land with a heavenly climate for growing grapes, peaches, strawberries, and many other foods.

That isn't what they were looking for, of course. Avidly searching for spices and the fabled gold of the Inca empire, the conquistadors were not aware of the future value of their new possession - the land. Nor could they have been as impressed with the dry, smog-free, sunny, climate as were a group of food writers from the United States and Canada visiting Chile last month.

"For centuries the lush and fertile valleys, the hours of sunshine, have been ideal for growing many different horticultural species," says Rosario Valdez, food writer of Paula Cucina, a Chilean magazine. "In northern Chile's desert there are places where no drop of rain has ever fallen," she says. "And in the south there are regions where rain falls almost every day. There are fertile valleys in between, and one area called the lake district looks like Switzerland."

The story of Chilean cuisine follows history's imprint. The invading Spanish found the tough, warlike Araucanian Indians, who resisted conquest and extermination. The result was a blending of Indian and Spanish foods, with a diet mostly of seafood, fruit, corn, beans, and squash.

Preconquest Indians lacked ingredients such as milk, butter, and cheese. Meat was scarce except among ruling classes. The Indians had no eggs from chickens; ducks and wild birds were rare luxuries. History records that they were quick to adopt some of the crops and animals brought by the Spanish, accepting foods and cooking techniques when they fitted the Indians' way of life.

"The Indians have clung with amazing tenacity to their ancient customs, creating a Creole {regional} cuisine from the early cooking," explained food writer Valdez at an interview in Santiago, Chile's capital. "Many of the indigenous foods such as corn, beans, potatoes, and certain fruits, are still used in everyday cooking, as well as in traditional holiday dishes."

Chilean dishes are not peppery hot. There are local favorites such as empanadas, which are meat turnovers; humitas, a grated fresh-corn mixture steamed in corn husks; picaron, a fried pumpkin batter like a doughnut; and locro, a meat dish with potatoes.

At Los Lingues, a large adobe hacienda at San Fernando, 75 miles outside Santiago, our group had a rare glimpse of upper-echelon Chilean hospitality. Now a guest house and working farm, the home of German Claro Lira and his wife Maria Elena Lyon Claro has passed down through Mr. Claro's family since the land grant in 1545.

"I run Los Lingues as if it were my home," says Mrs. …

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