Spanning as it does nearly 40 degrees of latitude, Chilean food and drink is as diverse as its climate and geography. Unlike neighbouring Peru, where good food is ubiquitous, you can go very wrong with Chilean food which at its worst is oily and obsessed with quantity instead of quality. Read this guide to keep your stomach smiling…
If you’re after the freshest, most authentic seafood dishes, the best place to start is in the Mercado Central of the town or city you’re in. Choose the restaurant with the longest line and order what the locals are ordering. I’m extremely fond of loco or abalone, and empanadas de loco always go down a treat. Chilean corvina or sea bass is delicious (especially when washed down with a glass of chardonnay) and the various seafood soups (among them sopa de mariscos, caldillo de congrio and paila marina) are all well worth a try. You don’t have to limit yourself to the rustic, rickety market stalls: there are some excellent upmarket seafood restaurants in Santiago and Valparaiso – just ask your guide or hotel for up-to-the-minute recommendations.
Just because Chilean seafood is what I get most excited about, doesn’t mean that Chileans only eat mariscos. In fact, studies show that Chilean consumption of meat has more than doubled in recent decades while seafood has decreased in popularity. Popular meat dishes include bistec a lo pobre (literally ‘poor man’s steak’: a plate of chips piled high with sliced beef, fried onions, a fried egg and – if you’re lucky – some mashed avocado), cazuela (a meat stew containing either beef, pork or lamb and a variety of vegetables including potatoes, corn, pumpkin and peas) and asado which is based on its more famous Argentine counterpart but sadly not quite as good.
Fast food is very popular in Chile and (from the right place) it is tasty, hearty and filling. As always, go to the busiest stall and order what the locals are having. The Chilean completo, or hot dog, has to be seen to be believed. Not only is it twice the size of an American hotdog, but even the most basic version comes with gallons of mayonnaise, freshly chopped tomatoes and a liberal dose of sauerkraut. My favourite, however, is the completo Italiano which substitutes the sauerkraut for mashed avocado – delicious, and a meal in itself!
Every South American country has its own interpretation of the empanada de carne, and the Chilean variety is marked by its enormous size (this is a recurring theme!) and the presence of boiled eggs and olives in the mince mix – just watch out for olive pits! Another must-try fast food is the chacarero: a round bun filled with thinly sliced steak, tomatoes, green beans, avocado and hot sauce.
Chilean wines deserve a blog post all of their own (don’t worry, we’ll get there!) but here’s a brief overview. Chile has given carmenere – an ancient European grape which fell out of favor centuries ago – a new lease on life. Chile is by far the world’s biggest producer of carmenere, and although it was traditionally used in blends, high-end wineries are now starting to produce it as a varietal with incredible success. For most people, however, the best Chilean wines remain its cabernet sauvignons (which taste completely different to typical ‘cab savs’ when produced in Chilean conditions) and its chardonnays.
If you’re not an oenophile you won’t have to go thirsty in Chile. We’ve already discussed two cocktails (the weak-at-the-knees terremoto and the iconic pisco sour) on these pages, while schoperias (beer gardens with loads of beer on tap and basic menus of sandwiches, fries, empanadas and the like) are ten to the dozen.
These are just a few of my Chilean eating and drinking highlights. Do let us know what yours are…a country as vast and varied as Chile definitely has something for everyone.