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El Completo: Our six week search to discover Chilean food

In Thailand it was the Pad Thai. In Ethiopia it was injera. And in Bali, it was the Babi Guling at a hole-in-the wall recommended by Anthony Bourdain. One of the best things about traveling is falling in love with new foods and desperately missing them when you leave. Richenda still talks about the $2 Prawn Pad Thai she ate at a beachside stand five years ago.

So when we arrived in Vina del Mar, Chile, the first thing we asked about was the food. We’re staying in a small B&B with staff eager to help plan out our itinerary for the day. He pulled out a map and started circling restaurants.

“There’s a Peruvian restaurant here… Japanese sushi here… a nice French place here… a German Pub here… and the best Argentinian steakhouse is right here.”

“And Chilean food?”

“Well, yes of course…” He smiled and shrugged, “There are Chilean restaurants too”.

Uh, oh. Was this foreshadowing? Come to think of it, I’d never really heard of Chilean food. I like to think I’m adventurous enough to know a little something about food from most countries… But Chile? I had no idea. There’s certainly no Chilean restaurant in the food court at the malls that I know of. I couldn’t tell you a single Chilean dish.

So we went looking.

The view from "Alto Mar by La Gatita" in Con Con
The view from “Alto Mar”, a seafood restaurant in Con Con.
Hotel Casavino, Casablanca
Our front porch in the vineyards. Hotel Casavino, Casablanca.
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Driving through the Andes between Chile and Argentina.

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Ceviche? Peru.
Steak with Chimichurri Sauce? Argentina.
Empanadas? Spain.

Right away we found great food in Chile, but much of it we recognised from other countries. Immigrants from Spain, Germany Italy, Argentina and Peru have all brought their own cooking styles to Chile, and the food still reflects this. Sort of like how USA has a bunch of pizza styles—New York Thin Slice, Chicago Deep Dish, Little Caesars Hot-n-Ready $5—and yet, pizza is obviously Italian.

But we were after Chilean-Chilean food. Traditional. Original. Authentic. Something deliciously Chilean that could only be found here.

In Vina Del Mar, we wandered into a cool little seafood restaurant full of locals drinking booze hidden in coffee cups (‘cause that’s what you do in Chile before a restaurant gets its liquor license!) We asked for a traditional Chilean dinner, and the waitress enthusiastically suggested a dish from the south of Chile, that had “a taste of everything”. 

I forget the name of the dish, but you’ll have to forgive me, cause it was pretty forgettable tasting too. A watery broth with overcooked fish, sausage, and flavourless boiled chicken. Maybe it was it out of season? A bad day? Or just a bad dish?

We had a few other bad food experiences that week. We learned a “Chilean Salad” is nothing more than onions and tomatoes. And then we began to wonder…

Maybe authentic Chilean food just isn’t very good? 

Perhaps Chile is like a nice neighbour. They’re good-looking, quick to laugh, and kind to babies and old people. They’re bilingual, humble, can salsa dance effortlessly, and a little wealthier than the rest of the neighbourhood. Is this family perfect or what? So when you hear a rumour they might not cook as good, it’s actually sort of a relief.

Valparaiso
Valparaiso

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We fell in love with Chile early into our trip. It wasn’t just the beaches and mountains, or the perfect weather, or the colourful houses carved into the hills of Valparaiso. It was the people. Everyone we met was extremely warm, kind, relaxed. And Chileans LOVE babies. Pick a random Chilean off the street and I’m pretty sure they’d fawn over Ashna just as much as we do. About 20 times a day, women and men come up to us on the street and grab her toes and talk baby with her.

“Que linda!” How cute!
“Tiene buena leche materna!” You have good breastmilk.
“Aye Gordita!” Little chubby girl!

Did I mention Chileans are very direct? They’re very direct.

Richenda was a little sensitive about all the chubby baby comments. But anyone who adores my kid is cool with me.

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It’s easy to generalise when you’re traveling; especially when you have limited time in a country.

Kenyans are jolly and have big smiles.
Vietnamese drive crazy.
Australians drink too much.
Chilean food isn’t very good.

Sometimes there’s an element of truth, sometimes they’re way off. Not wanting to make any premature judgements on Chilean food, we tuned in to our unofficial travel buddy, Anthony Bourdian, for some guidance.

No Reservations: Chile. Season 5, Episode 11.

And that’s how I first heard of the “Completo” an epic-ly Chilean dish. It’s a giant hot dog with sauerkraut, chopped tomatoes, a half pound of avocado, and “a copious—some might say excessive—slathering of mayo.”  It’s the perfect late night snack after a couple of beers.

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After we wiped the mayonnaise from our chins, we asked my sister Alissa and my brother-in-law Raimundo, residents of Santiago, to recommend a few restaurants. At the top of the list was Peumayen Ancestral Food.

“A quick visit to Santiago may leave the impression that typical Chilean food is limited to steak sandwiches and completos, the ever-present hot dogs smeared with avocado. In an effort to change that, the restaurant Peumayen attempts to reawaken the ancestral cuisine of some of the country’s native peoples: the Mapuche, Aymará and Rapa Nui.”

New York Times, July 2014

Peumayen Ancestral Food is more than a restaurant, it’s an experience. They pride themselves on serving indigenous food using “ancient ingredients” and recipes with a contemporary twist. Llama. Lamb Tongue. Sea-snails. I had insanely tender horsemeat, and Richenda had fish that was smoked at the table. Throughout the night they repeatedly brought complementary tastes from the kitchen, including amazing ancient breads made from beans and corn. The service is the best we had in Chile, and the bill is way smaller than you’d expect.

Their menu is based on extensive research of indigenous cooking from all around Chile, including the vast differences in ingredients and climate. For example, in the north is the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth. The land is so barren it’s where NASA tests Mars rovers. In the south is Puerto Williams, the most southern city in the world, where it occasionally  snows in the summer. One of the reasons Chilean food is hard to put into a box is because the country is so geographically diverse.

Maybe we were predestined to love Peumayen; it was our very first dinner date out since Ash was born. But our bias isn’t misguided; it’s currently ranked #2 out of 3,567 Santiago restaurants on TripAdvisor. If you’re in Santiago, you must go.

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But out of all the food we ate, there was one dish we ordered over and over again: Machas a la Parmigiana.

In the 1950’s, an Italian immigrant named Eduardo Melotti Ferrari worked as a chef in Vina Del Mar. Although traditional Italian cooking forbids adding cheese to seafood, Eduardo apparently felt a bit frisky that day and combined razor clams, white wine, cream, and parmesan, baked it, and called it Machas a la Parmigiana. Today it’s a Chilean classic, and seen on menus everywhere.

It’s incredible. Nutty, lemony, garlic-y, irreverently cheesy seafood. And it’s even better paired with a Chilean chardonnay… on a rooftop in Barrio Lastarria… fresh from the oven… with clams my sister picked from the seafood market… and homemade by my brother-in-law Raimundo. That’s my favourite food memory in Santiago. Homemade Razor Clams. Surrounded by laughter.

Razor Clams al Parmesian
Razor Clams al Parmesan and Whitefish Ceviche, Homemade by my brother-in-law Raimundo.

In the end, we found great food. Amazing food. Especially when we knew where to look (past the Completo shops). But the true magic of Chile isn’t just in the food alone. Or the wine alone. Or the people alone. But when the three come together, as they did so many times on our trip, it was perfect. So by all means, cook some Machas a la Parmesana, Pastel De Jaiba, or even a Completo. But you must know it tastes best with a few bottles of Chilean wine, and the laughter of friends. That’s when everything shines.

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BBQ'ing with the Miralles family.
BBQ’ing with the Miralles family.
Mm 450 La Cevicheria
Ceviche from La Cevicheria, Valparaiso
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“La Gatita”, the house specialty seafood platter at Alto Mar in Con Con.

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STAY
La Blanca Hotel, Vina Del Mar. Small boutique hotel on a tree-lined street, walking distance to everything. From $110/night
Hotel CasaVino, Casablanca. Our favourite Airbnb experience, ever. Alfanso will welcome you like family to his cozy eco-sustainable cottage in the middle of a working vineyard. $140/night
Lastarria 43, Santiago. Right in the middle of Barrio Lastarria, the most walkable and beautiful neighbourhood in Chile. From $75/night

EAT
Puymayan Ancestral Food, Santiago
Alto Mar by La Gatita, Con Con
Macerado, Casablanca
…and eat (at least) one Completo, ideally late at night and after a few drinks.

DRINK
Wine. Chile wine is exceptional, and an incredible value. $5 gets you a good bottle, and for $10 you’ll be amazed. If you have a chance to visit the vineyards in Casablanca, definitely stop by Bodegas RE. Or try a Pisco Sour, a traditional cocktail that tastes a bit like a Margarita.

HOW TO MAKE ANYTHING* CHILEAN

  1. Start with thing
  2. Add chopped Tomatoes, mashed Avocado and a GIANT scoop of Mayonnaise.
  3. Ta-da. Now it’s Chilean!

*Works best on hot dogs, burgers, pork sandwiches, all sandwiches, french fries, salads, pasta, pizza, steaks, fish, rice, bread, or just on a plain old plate. YMMV.

 


Hey, thanks for reading all the way! This was my first ever shot at travel writing, I hope you enjoyed it. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below, especially if you’ve visited, want to visit, or live there and think I’m totally wrong about the salad (Ahem, Alissa). One commenter will be chosen at random to win a bottle of Chilean wine we brought back 🙂

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Kyle Vermeulen

I love good stories and hot sauce. I'm a Product Manager at SitePoint, and spend my days trying to help people learn tech skills online. Right now, I'm probably looking for my keys, phone and/or wallet.

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