If my brain had an equivalent of Google’s most frequently asked questions, I believe my top 3 would look something like this:
- Is that a really a job? (Something I ask myself when I witness yet another five people handing out flyers on the street for restaurants, or a women stationed at the bathroom to hand me a piece of toilet paper.)
- Do I eat this? (Synonymous with “What is this?”)
- What is Chilean food?
I do not believe that any of these questions have specific answers. This post aims to explore the realm of possibilities for question #3 of my FAQs.
The question “what do the inhabitants of [insert country here] eat?” is tricky no matter the geographical coordinates. It’s a question of great importance, but requires you to acknowledge that a country is not one homogeneous culture, but a group of individuals with different tastes and interests. Inhabitants of the United States may eat pizza, french fries, and hamburgers, but that answers also veers towards over-generalization. One must trod on the topic of food and gastronomy with careful feet and a conscious mind!
I can admit with some amount of shame that my idea of Chilean food before leaving the United States was based on what I found at local Mexican restaurants and the inaccurate correlation of Spanish-speaking individuals and rice and beans. I briefly looked up images on Google before I departed for my semester abroad. I arrived on the Chilean food scene with a mix of ignorance, naivety, and a big case of never-been-out-of-the-country. Fortunately, I’ve tried enough food in the last two months to share a bit of my observations.
I’ve been living with a host family who provides me with a lot of my meals, however this post is focused on the food I’ve eaten outside of my house which I’ve deemed here as “fast food” for a lack of a better term. I mean no negative connotations.
While Vina Del Mar does yield a surprising amount of mainstream fast food joints such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Popeye’s Chicken, I believe that Chilean fast food is something different altogether. I’ve tried both McDonald’s and Pizza Hut out of curiosity and an insatiable urge to eat pizza. Though the McDonald’s here in Chile is gigantic– containing a large playland, a separate cafe for their coffee-related drinks, two stories of seating area, and the occasional weekend DJ– the menu was limited, my burger was lukewarm, my french fries uncharacteristically under cooked, and the bill was a reflection of the trend rather than the cheap.
My experience with Pizza Hut was slightly better. I had a personal veggie pizza that cost way too much money and included corn as a topping. I’ve learned now to expect corn on pizza here and have become quite fond of it. Also my friends and I ordered the cinnamon dessert sticks to treat our homesickness, dreaming about the creamy icing, however when they arrived at our table they were presented without icing and instead accompanied by a small bowl of jelly.
The real treasure of fast food in Chile is the underwhelming, often overlooked tiny “diners” that are numerous and often offer what appears to be a continuous cycle of similar specials. Here you will find completos, chorillana, empanada, and all sorts of variation on the sandwich that will probably come with a bebida y papas fritas (beverage and fries).
While none of these fast food joints immediately seem to be blue ribbon options, I’ve learned that Chileans know what they’re good at, and they stick to it. They don’t need to wow your socks off because they already have loyal followers.
The completo is what I thought to be a glorified hot dog upon first arrival to Chile. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it’s not even about the meat, but everything that comes with it. The completo, generally coming in both a normal size and a giant size, is a hot dog on a bun with mayonnaise, avocado, tomatoes, and usually a form of sauerkraut. Completos are consumed for lunch, for dinner, at 3 am, on your way to class, when you want to grab a snack with your friend, etc. Many are prepared with a bit of variation but one consistent factor is there are never enough napkins and generally a lack of plate. Extra points if the bun is toasted.
Imagine french fries. Imagine french fries topped with sauteed onions. Imagine french fries topped with sauteed onions, chopped hot dog, and cuts of beef. Now imagine this in large portions. You’ve got the chorillana. I visited the christened birth place of the chorillana, a restaurant in Valparaiso by the name of Jota Cruz. It’s located at the end of a long skinny alley and the walls of the restaurant are collaged with passport photos and customers’ words of thank you and other really random but exciting junk. The restaurant is not large and when you sit down at the wooden tables with table cloths littered with previous customers’ scribbles, you feel as if you are sitting down to eat dinner in the center of the local flea market. The only thing the waiter asks is if you want the large sized chorillanas or the extra large sized, which may be an inaccurate recount of the sizes because I only remember the way he motioned his hands to demonstrate the monstrous plate sizes.
I cannot say too much about the sandwiches here in Chile because I am still working my way through trying several. I can only say that the common factors of all types of sandwiches, no matter the meat, are a lot of cheese and even more avocado. And of course good ol’ Chilean bread. Yum. I’ve discovered a restaurant that serves giant sandwiches that I want to try. The buns are about the size of a dinner plate and they are grilled to perfection.
While the empanada is found in many Latin American countries and also parts of Europe, Chile is a major player in empanada consumption just as well. Recently I took a trip to the small town of Pomaire, home of many artisans and also the 1/2 kilo empanada. The empanada is a stuffed bread or pastry and the possibilities of fillings are endless. My favorite is the cheesy, scrumptious shrimp empanada I occasionally buy from a small family run shop half way up one of Valparaiso’s hills. The typical Chilean empanada would be the empanada de pino which includes beef, hard boiled eggs, onions, olives, and sometimes raisins. The best part about empanadas being in abundance is that you can get a fantastic empanada for less than $1.
I’ve found that navigating restaurant menus and trying foreign foods is one of the most painless ways to dive into a new culture. It’s also a reasonable excuse to spend too much time at bakeries. Nonetheless, consider this a brief, surface introduction to the world of Chilean culinary arts. Expect more to come!