When it comes to its food, Chilean cuisine does not come with the same cachet which the food of other South American countries is known for. Argentina and Brazil’s barbecues are better known; Peru has ceviche; Colombia and Venezuela have arepas, and so on. But don’t let the lack of renown be a deterrent: Chile has an incredibly diverse and delicious gastronomy that is a showcase of the country’s melting-pot culture and its unparalleled access to fresh seafood and other ingredients.
Chilean food, which varies from the north to south, is a blend of the many peoples and cultures that have made their home in this tiny country: indigenous tribes like the Mapuches, the Spanish, English, Welsh, German, and more. All of these influences have mixed together to create incredible variety and great flavor, from the corner fuente de soda to world-renowned eateries.
But in all this diversity, there are a few foods that rise above the rest, that truly exemplify their mother country, while also paying homage to any outside influences that may have aided in their creation. As someone who has lived in Chile for many years, and who loves traveling just to try the food, there are many foods I recommend to friends and family when they come visit, but here, in my opinion, are the seven best foods to try in Chile…to start with!
Marraquetas (Smoothie Bread)
Bread is an integral part of Chile’s culinary identity and overall society: here, it is common to visit a panaderia almost every day to buy fresh bread for once (Chilean tea time) and other meals. There are many different varieties of bread (all baked fresh and daily) to try but arguably the most popular is the marraqueta.
The marraqueta (also known as pan batido or pan frances, depending on which part of the country you’re in) is said to have been invented in the port city of Valparaiso in the late 19th century by a pair of French baker brothers. It’s known for its iconic se-tenant shape: a singular roll of white bread that’s been divided into four smaller but still attached rolls. Great for sharing, the marraqueta rolls are used for toast with egg or avocado, as sandwich bread, and also as the bun for chorizo in choripan.
Patagonian Asado al Palo
Chileans love their meat, so the roast (barbecue) is an oft-practiced part of festivities like birthdays and holidays. But in the south of the country, in Patagonia, the tradition has its own twist which was created and popularized by the region’s baqueanos – the local version of cowboys.
Coming to Patagonia in the 18th and 19th century to herd sheep during the sheep farming and wool boom, the baqueanos would spend weeks out on the vast stays where the herds roamed, rounding them up. The asado began as just a simple meal while out on the land: butterflying a lamb over a smoldering fire, keeping the meat moist with water, salt, and garlic cloves. When the meat is done (about three hours), the baqueanos use their long knives to make the best cuts, and the meal is enjoyed with pebre and lots of wine.
Nowadays, the Asado al Palo has evolved to mainly being done for special occasions like sheep shearing and rodeos. Not only is it delicious, but the whole ceremony around the barbecue is also what makes it a must-try.
With its more than 2,500 mile-long coastline and the ocean never being more than a few hours away, seafood is a key part of Chilean cuisine and you can be guaranteed it is always served fresh from the water. So it stands to reason that one of the best things you can find on the menu anywhere in Chile is a good ceviche.
Peru claims ceviche as its national dish, but it is widely eaten and well-known all along the Pacific coast of South America. In Chile, Patagonian toothfish or halibut are the most commonly used fish, which are marinated in lime and served with flavor accents like garlic, cilantro, or red chili. Squeeze some lime on top as well for good measure and enjoy as an entrada (appetizer).
With its warmth, easy recipe, and ubiquity, cazuela is the Chilean equivalent of chicken noodle soup. It’s also one of the best examples of the blending of indigenous and Hispanic cuisines, as the soup is similar to both the Spanish stew olla podrida and a soup from the Mapuche tribe.
The typical recipe consists of a meat or veggie broth, in which chunks of meat like chicken or beef and vegetables like corn on the cob, potatoes, carrots, celery, and the butternut squash-esque Andean squash abound. Rice is sometimes also cooked along with the broth. The meat and vegetables are served in a bowl filled with the broth, and most Chileans drink the broth first before eating the main ingredients.
Curanto al Hoyo
This ancient dish, which has been around since approximately 11,525 AD, comes from the archipelago of Chiloe in the south of Chile and is as famous for its preparation and presentation as its hearty taste.
First, a hole in the ground is lined with fire-heated stones covered with giant nalca leaves, into which are heaped clams, sausage, milcao (a pancake made of Chiloe’s famous potatoes), potatoes, meat, and lots of different kinds of shellfish. The whole pile is then covered in more leaves and left to cook until ready, at which point the curanto al hoyo is revealed in a gust of steam and everyone can enjoy.
Sopaipillas can be found in countries with Hispanic backgrounds all over the Americas, with differentiations in flavor like sweet or savory. In Chile, they are made savory, with mashed Andean pumpkin, flour, salt, and butter mixed together, flattened into round disks, and fried in hot oil.
Easy and quick to make, they’re a popular snack in the home, and are readily available as a street food. They can be eaten alone or topped with pebre (the Chilean version of pico de gallo), condiments like ketchup or mustard. Another way to enjoy them is to soak them in chancaca, a maple syrupy substance, to make sopaipillas pasadas: a popular treat on rainy or winter days, especially in the south of Chile.
Mote con Huesillo
This nectar-sweet but strange-looking drink/snack is so quintessentially Chilean that it even has its own saying: “more Chilean than mote con huesillo”.
The preparation starts with a mixture of water, cinnamon, and dehydrated peaches, which is cooked together until it reaches a syrupy consistency. The liquid then cools and is ladled into a glass and mixed with freshly cooked husked wheat and a peach pit. The wheat adds interesting texture and a mellow, more earthy flavor that counteracts the sweetness of the peaches and sugar. Refreshing and delicious, a popular place to enjoy this treat is at Cerro Santa Lucia in Santiago, especially during the summertime.