This post was planned to be dedicated exclusively to the sweet, creamy, gooey, ubiquitous Chilean delicacy known as manjar.
However, before we get down to business, I have to announce that I have found a passable latte in Antofagasta.
Yes, that’s right. After nearly three months of cafe-hopping, searching, begging and pleading (and too many dishwater-tasting coffees to count later) I found a real latte.
So it’s not exactly the American venti. It’s an “Italian style” latte, which is to say, small, yet reasonably powerful and flavourful. Its origins lie in Illy espresso, a reasonable European brand. My walking partner (and cafe hopping) friend found it this small, warm miracle a quaint, clean, tastefully decorated little cafe in a modern new building owned by Escondida Mine, discretely tucked away in a back street with poor sidewalks. Best of all, the cafe staff has some broken English (they go well with my broken Spanish) and they have also discovered the joy of paper cups and lids so I can take the latte para ayer (to go). Bonus points: in addition to the yummy espresso, they have flavoured lattes which I am particularly fond of (no vanilla, but they at least had caramel and chocolate), an outdoor terrace with pretty summer flowers as well as an art gallery in the lower level. I am a satisfied customer.
So now that I have that settled, I can continue my expedition through the world of Chilean cuisine. Let’s get back to the manjar.
Manjar is everywhere. It is so present in Chilean desserts that you’d be hard-pressed to find a sweet that does not in any way incorporate the gooey substance. Chileans are so wild over it, they have a saying that if something is particularly great, “it is manjar” i.e, ¡este pollo es manjar! (this chicken is manjar).
Manjar, pronounced here mah-yah is essentially boiled, condensed, caramelized sweetened condensed milk. (Yes, that’s right, condensed twice.) Its texture is thick, gooey and dollopy, like a super dense pudding and it tastes more or less like a very milky caramel. It certainly packs a sweet punch, fitting for a country filled with people who seem to all have a major sweet tooth.
Manjar is used as the fillings in cakes, sandwich cookies, pastries. It is spread on toast in the morning. Stirred into yogurt. Snacks are dipped in it. A thinned-out version is used as a sauce and poured over petits fours. It is sold in jars, cans, bottles and foil packets. Dunkin Donuts at the Santiago airport puts manjar in the center of their donuts. McDonalds blends it into their McFlurries. There are as many different brands of manjar on supermarket shelves as there are brands of jams and jellies.
I am indifferent to manjar. On the one hand, I have always liked caramel and butterscotch, and it is certainly a close cousin to those sticky treats. On the other hand, it is so unavoidable in desserts that it makes me long for sweets other than manjar. (For instance, I have yet to see a bakery cookie or cake with a chocolate or fruit filling).
I see manjar so often that I’ve begun to joke with my husband that if something (or someone) seems particularly Chilean, they are manjar. (Yes, I’m injecting a new meaning into this word’s usage. You’re welcome.) We have a set of coasters that my husband bought depicting traditional Chilean scenes. In one, a lady is cooking something in a kettle… I am pretty sure it’s manjar.
You may already be familiar with it: it is known in the U.S. (as well as Mexico and Argentina, the country that lays claim to its origins,) as dulce de leche. However, having never tried it outside Chile, I am not certain whether it is the same exact substance.
We will be going to Argentina in a few days: I am sure I’ll have a chance to try their version of the treat. We’ve been instructed to try the sandwich cookies known as alfajores in Argentina, which has what else in its center other than …well, not manjar per se, but dulce de leche.