Finding Surprise in the Familiar

Chilean food's unusual taste comes from a blend of ingredients known to North Americans. Chile's Cuisine Reveals Its History

COLUMBUS may never have set foot on the west coast of South America, but the Spanish adventurers who followed him and settled on the long skinny coastline of Chile discovered a land with a heavenly climate for growing grapes, peaches, strawberries, and many other foods.

That isn't what they were looking for, of course. Avidly searching for spices and the fabled gold of the Inca empire, the conquistadors were not aware of the future value of their new possession - the land. Nor could they have been as impressed with the dry, smog-free, sunny, climate as were a group of food writers from the United States and Canada visiting Chile last month.

"For centuries the lush and fertile valleys, the hours of sunshine, have been ideal for growing many different horticultural species," says Rosario Valdez, food writer of Paula Cucina, a Chilean magazine. "In northern Chile's desert there are places where no drop of rain has ever fallen," she says. "And in the south there are regions where rain falls almost every day. There are fertile valleys in between, and one area called the lake district looks like Switzerland."

The story of Chilean cuisine follows history's imprint. The invading Spanish found the tough, warlike Araucanian Indians, who resisted conquest and extermination. The result was a blending of Indian and Spanish foods, with a diet mostly of seafood, fruit, corn, beans, and squash.

Preconquest Indians lacked ingredients such as milk, butter, and cheese. Meat was scarce except among ruling classes. The Indians had no eggs from chickens; ducks and wild birds were rare luxuries. History records that they were quick to adopt some of the crops and animals brought by the Spanish, accepting foods and cooking techniques when they fitted the Indians' way of life.

"The Indians have clung with amazing tenacity to their ancient customs, creating a Creole [regional] cuisine from the early cooking," explained food writer Valdez at an interview in Santiago, Chile's capital. "Many of the indigenous foods such as corn, beans, potatoes, and certain fruits, are still used in everyday cooking, as well as in traditional holiday dishes."

Chilean dishes are not peppery hot. There are local favorites such as empanadas, which are meat turnovers; humitas, a grated fresh-corn mixture steamed in corn husks; picaron, a fried pumpkin batter like a doughnut; and locro, a meat dish with potatoes.

At Los Lingues, a large adobe hacienda at San Fernando, 75 miles outside Santiago, our group had a rare glimpse of upper-echelon Chilean hospitality. Now a guest house and working farm, the home of German Claro Lira and his wife Maria Elena Lyon Claro has passed down through Mr. Claro's family since the land grant in 1545.

"I run Los Lingues as if it were my home," says Mrs. Claro, whose menu included such Chilean country foods as her own recipe for Pastel de Choclo, a traditional and delicious casserole of corn niblets, corn meal, hard-boiled eggs, raisins, seasoned beef, and chicken. At dinner the Claros joined guests around the formal dining table for a meal that combined continental service with native foods. Cheese Gnocchi, Turbot in Zucchini Flowerets, and Ratatouille Nicoise were followed by a Meringue Torte with Lu cuma, a delicious, unusual fruit, also called egg fruit.

What sets Chilean food apart is the surprise of flavors - the combination of unusual tastes that come from ingredients that are familiar to North Americans.

Both corn and bean dishes here have flavors that were new to our palates because of the freshness of the foods and the subtle seasonings. A commonly used sauce is called color, an orange-red mixture of garlic, paprika, and heated oil. Another favorite is pebre, made of onions, vinegar, oil, garlic, chilies, and coriander.

Porotos Granados, made of corn, beans, and squash, is a leading national dish of Chile, a favorite eaten by all people. Although made of three typical Indian foods - cranberry beans, corn, and squash - the recipe includes two non-Indian major ingredients: onion and basil. (See recipe at left.)

"During colonial days, the only indigenous desserts were the marvelous fruits," says Ms. Valdez.

"The utmost refinement was to serve cherimoyas, lucuma [egg fruit], and strawberries." The cherimoya, intensely sweet, but with a delightful flavor, is called "strawberry in heaven."

A French engineer, Amedee Frezier, took Chilean strawberries to France in the early 18th century and had them planted in the garden of Versailles.

The Incas made desserts from squash, beans, and sweet potatoes, but had no butter, cream, or sugar to make the rich desserts of Europe, which flourished when sugar was introduced. Today, small, very sweet pastries with a Spanish-Moorish influence are popular, especially in the late afternoon.

This tea time, or snack time, is a tradition in Chile as in most South American countries, where the earliest dinner hour is 8 p.m. and is often delayed to an hour or more later. Italian, French, British, and cosmopolitan influences have been added to the Chilean cuisine in more recent times, but all the foods have a distinction that is a constant reminder of the significant contributions of the Indians.

Today, Chile is known for the fresh fruits it exports. Nearly all the seedless red and green grapes sold in the US and Canada in winter come from Chile, where it is summertime.

Chile is also a source of fresh farmed Atlantic salmon for the United States, an industry started just 10 years ago.

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