Happy Thanksgiving from the Tropic of Capricorn!
This year, I am thankful that I have my husband, that my family back home is healthy and happy (even though I am far from them), thankful for Skype and email (for keeping me in constant communication with my family) and for some of the kind people I have met down here that have helped make this experience more than tolerable.
Alex works late tonight so there will be no grand Thanksgiving feast at our house. (We did, however, celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving about a month ago…so that kind of counts, right?) I will likely sautée some turkey breasts (usually the only part of the turkey that I can find here: for some reason, it is marketed as a health food…?!) and make some mashed sweet potatoes from Peru and call it a night. Okay, maybe I’ll sip a small glass of Chilean Muscatel for good measure.
Chilean beef vs. Argentinean beef
A Carnivore’s Delight
While we’re on the topic of food, I thought I might update you on my adventures through Chilean cuisine. I’ve now been here for nearly 4 months and have gained a better overall sense the country’s tastes.
To anyone planning a trip to Chile, I seriously recommend focusing on seafood when you dine out here. Chile is a coastal country and as such, has wonderful, fresh seafood. Unfortunately, many Chilean restaurants seem to like to top fish with a gut-busting salty mixture of bacon, onions and white wine, so I’ve learned to look for pan-fried fish (lightly sauteed, thin fillets of fresh white fish). I like fish with papas salteadas (although the salted part of the name of this dish is redundant, because everything here is heavily salted). The potatoes that are commonly cooked in Chile are a firm potato that is golden on the inside, like an Idaho, and has a light red skin on the outside, like a redskin. Very tasty.
Chileans also seem fond of sausages, a particular food that I always struggle with (I’m not a huge fan of meat, and sausages seem to somehow be the meatiest of all meat dishes). The sausages are not very spiced or seasoned (other than with salt), so they have a more significant meat flavour. Often they are served on skewers along with other meats, such as chunks of chicken, beef and pork.
It is said that Chilean beef is some of the best in the world. I am not a beef connoisseur, so I can’t comment too much on this. However, I will say that it seems to be more flavourful and “meaty” than American beef. I have not been floored by the steaks I’ve had (mostly because they seem to have been dripped in a salty brine before being grilled). Argentinean steaks – Argentina is, of course, absolutely famous for its beef – impressed me more. Perfectly seasoned, tender and juicy. Served with a small dollop of au gratin potatoes. (Chileans are going to resent me for writing this. There’s an ongoing rivalry regarding the superiority of the beef between these two countries.)
My precious bags of spices (sold in tiny 15g bags) along with - no kidding - the smallest bag of sea salt I could find (800 g)
The Good, the Bad, the Salty
I avoid pasta. Being from Montreal – where there is, in my opinion, the best pasta in the world, or at least as good as in Bologna, Italy – my level of tolerance for inferior pasta is low. The one time I ordered fettucini Alfredo here (what I thought would be a safe dish), I received a bowl of mushy “fettucini” in a sauce that had – brace yourselves – chunks of unnaturally pink ham in it. I am pretty sure I will not crave this particular dish again for a long time.
A Chilean food group is mayonaise. Believe it or not, the mayonaise aisle in the grocery store is as long as the potato chip aisle. There is a type of mayo for every occasion. Mayonaise goes on absolutely everything: slathered on sandwiches of course, smeared on hamburgers, steaks and ribs, fries and baked potatoes are dipped in it, “salads” are made with it, and who knows what else. If you can put mayonaise in, on it, it has mayonaise on it. Usually waitresses are absolutely shocked that Alex and I do not request extra mayonaise with our meals.
Speaking of “salads,” cold chunks of cauliflower and carrots and beets boiled to within an inch of their death served with a spray of lemon and some salt, anyone?
Seasoning is minimal. And by minimal, I mean that table salt appears to be the only “seasoning” that has been discovered thus far. Black pepper is rarely found on restaurant tables. In the grocery store, I struggle to find cayenne, cumin and other seasonings that I regularly use. Herbs are also sparingly used. I can sometimes find fresh basil, sage or thyme, but it’s a lucky day when I do. Usually the only fresh herbs I regularly find are parsley and (about 50% of the time) cilantro. Dried herbs are also an upward battle. Dried oregano seems to be used en masse (it is sold in bags as large as 1lb or so) but nothing else, not even dried parsley, is easy to come by. I have slowly accumulated a small collection that includes dried oregano, basil and dill, but that took about 3 months to collect! I miss my herbs de provence (yes, I realize how spoiled I was in Montreal).
Chilean "fusion" cuisine: French fries, sausages and bacon topped with a fried egg. Oh and salt.
International cuisine (and, by extension, fusion cuisine that is so popular in North America now), is virtually nonexistent here. (I can’t speak for Santiago, where I have heard there are a few more options.) One of our more well-liked haunts is a Greek restaurant, but I think food there would be “Greek” to even the Greeks. The pitas are tiny and not freshly made (sigh. I know, I know, I was spoiled in Montreal, where Greek immigrants take care of details like making their own pitas) and filled with a mixture of salty meat. “Greek” salads don’t have feta in them. Tzatsiki sauce is little more than regular yogurt with…you guessed it, salt.
We sometimes go out for Chinese, but it is disappointing because traditional Chinese sauces and spices have been substituted with… okay, need I say it? Salt.
And don’t even think of looking for a restaurant with spicier foods like Thai or Indian… You’d have to fly about 5,000 miles to get those.
Before I start sounding like a broken record, the point here is that as always when traveling, the best food is local food. Or, at least, regional food. Some of my friends here have suggested that Peruvian restaurants are the best. (Remember, Peru is not too far from where we are, and Antofagasta has had significant influence from its nearby Bolivian and Peruvian neighbours.) On Monday, I joined someone at one of her favourite lunch places downtown. I had a seafood soup (cooked mussels and fish in a broth with dried tomatoes, carrots and cilantro) and pan-fried fish that was excellent, made by Peruvian immigrants.
My theory is that you cannot arrive in Chile and expect to find the same foods from cities and countries that have had a greater amount of influence from immigrants and locals who have been exposed to global cuisine through travel or, at least, popular TV chefs like Jamie Oliver or Anthony Bourdain, who have made more international tastes the norm in the last two decades in North America. Chileans are happily on their own, nested between the Andes and the Pacific, enjoying their bland breads, potatoes and salty meat, and so that is what you must enjoy here, too. I have learned to go with the flow and dig into what they do best: piles of salty seafood and potatoes, sandwiches with chicken, avocado and mayo.