One of my students recently told me about a common saying in Chile. When something great happens, or when life is generally good, it is referred to as ‘mejor que el pan con palta’. This immediately sets the bar pretty high, as I have discovered here that few things can beat the simple goodness of ‘pan con palta.’
The simple palta, or avocado in Chile is a thing of greatness. Far superior to any avocado I have ever had in England, it is hard to describe the rich creaminess of the ripe Chilean avocado which has not had to travel thousands of miles without drooling all over my keyboard. Sadly however, avocados here are not cheap. Even in the local grocery store, you are looking at paying around £2 per average sized- avocado. For this reason, avocados are probably my biggest expense here in Santiago, as most days I am unable to resist toddling off down my road to the grocers to reward myself for no good reason with a fat avocado for my lunch. But holy Jesus, are they worth it.
Another strong area of the Chilean cuisine is the asado, or barbeque. As the summer in Chile is essentially 9 months long, they have had plenty of opportunity to create the perfect barbeque technique. During my first asado here at the hostel I was staying at, I watched in awe as Ivan, the hostel owner and master of the asado threw what appeared to be half a cow onto the coals and proceeded to slowly cook it to absolute perfection. Brazilians and Argentinians I have met here roll their eyes and laugh when I rave about Chilean asados, telling me that I have clearly never been to their countries before and experienced a ‘real’ asado. If these are indeed better than Chilean asados, that is something else to look forward to.
The rest of the food in Chile has unfortunately been quite disappointing. Although Chile is rich in culture in many other areas, their food does appear to lack a strong cultural identity. Much of the food here is pretty greasy and heavy. One of the most famous dishes, the chorrillana, is composed of a slab of beef, covered with chips, fried onions and a fried egg. Another trademark dish is the ‘completo’, a type of hotdog sold on street corners covered in chopped tomatoes and palta (naturally). Don’t get me wrong, this kind of food can be delicious and at times much needed, especially to cure a hangover. But I have sadly not found too much variation in Chilean food here in Santiago, and there is only so much fried and fatty food you can tolerate.
Also, much food I normally cook in England is expensive here. Noodles, coconut cream and other Asian imports such as spices are difficult to find and not cheap. This is unsurprising due to the small Asian community in Chile in comparison to England, but sometimes when I am craving Asian food I ignore the prices (£2.50 for a can of coconut cream, daylight robbery) and treat myself anyway. Hummus is also sadly non-existent in Santiago which was a bit of a nasty shock. But it’s fine. I’m over it. Almost.
Fortunately, Santiago is a bustling cosmopolitan city in close proximity to other gastronomic destinations, such as Peru, so the lack of variety in Chilean food is not too much of an issue. Many Chileans have told me to ignore their own cuisine, and instead head straight for the nearest Peruvian restaurant. I was not disappointed. I can’t say I have experienced enough Peruvian food to consider myself anywhere near an expert, but my favorite dish of ceviche is an absolute must for any sea food lover. Raw fish cooked only by the acidity of limes, with peppers, red onion and coriander, I promise it is not as weird as it sounds but actually extremely mouth wateringly-delicious. ‘Zingy’ is the best way to describe it- have a taste if you have never tried it and you will know exactly what I mean.
One of the benefits of living in such an international house (6 Chileans, 2 Venezuelans, 3 Portuguese, 1 Brazilian, 1 French and 2 English) is the variety of food I have experienced in my own kitchen. From Venezuelan arepas (a kind of sandwich made from maize) to slow roasted Portuguese pork cuts accompanied with crispy potatoes, rosemary, chilies and onions, the food I have been lucky enough to try here more than makes up for the slightly disappointing Chilean cuisine, the lack of hummus or expensive noodles.