Part of my terribly exciting life in the magical land of Chile is that I get to eat cool things. Being a vegetarian, I miss out on many parts of Chilean cuisine, such as the exotic-sounding anticucho, which is actually just meat on a stick.
Chile is truly distinctive because it is relatively isolated from the rest of the world—there’s a huge desert to the north, a huge mountain range to the east, a huge ocean to the west, and to the south… well, there’s the South Pole. In addition to this isolation, Chile has an astoundingly diverse geography. Mix these two together, and you get crazy varieties of unique foodstuffs that you—and many Chileans, for that matter—have never even heard of.
Fortunately, friends, I am here to share some of the wonders of the fruits (and maybe an algae or so) that I’ve tried while in Chile.
First, some more or less common fruits that you can find in the grocery store, the market, and maybe in other countries:
- Cochayuyo: Let’s get it over with. This is a huge seaweed that has been consumed in Chile for hundreds of years, remaining common today in empanadas, salads, and soups. You buy the cochayuyo dry (a form in which it is only suitable for teething babies) and then soak or remojar it until it’s soft enough to eat. But be careful, remojar el cochayuyo also has a second meaning: coitus.
- Membrillo: Known in English as the quince, this fruit is a really hard, astringent relative of the apple or pear. Ok, I know quince is all over the world, but it is well-loved in Chile, mostly in the form of dulce de membrillo, which is basically a block of quince jam. Or I guess some people call it “quince cheese” (What?). If you feel like eating a membrillo raw, you can do a couple things. You can bash it furiously until it’s not so hard or astringent anymore, or you can cut it up and eat
it with salt… a common practice for me during all-nighters in college.
- Chirimoya: Mark Twain once called the chirimoya “the most delicious fruit known to men.” Its popularity has spread to many countries, but in Chile it is very common, especially as a yoghurt or ice cream flavor. Better yet, a typical Chilean dessert is chirimoya alegre, which is simply chirimoya with orange juice. Delightful!
- Tuna: No, not the fish. The prickly pear. For those of us that grew up in New England, it’s basically only something we hear about through Disney’s The Jungle Book. It is sweet and juicy like a honeydew melon and has hundreds of hard seeds that you eat right along with the rest of the fruit.
- Feijoa: The pineapple guava—not a Chilean fruit! I tried it for the first time this month, and it was impossible for me to put my finger on what it tasted like. It was like… a mix between kiwi and pineapple and a hint of spruce-like taste.
- Pepino dulce: A melon-y and cucumber-y fruit that I find captivating. It’s smooth, gracefully shaped and colored, and delicious!
When I married, I suddenly became part of a huge extended family that grew up up in the middle of nowhere (Reumén, Paillaco and Cayucupil, Cañete). I know, it’s basically like they’re from Vermont. I mean, I remember living in Westford as a very small girl and finding wildberries. I guess it’s just what you’ve gotta do. Anyhow, this extended family also has a penchant for fruits of the forest—nuts, berries, stems, fungi… all of the tasty goodies that you find when living out in el campo.
- Piñon: The amazing fruit of Chile’s national tree, the Araucaria. When raw, this nut is fresh, crisp, and makes your tongue feel a bit dry, but when it’s been steamed, it is the sweetest nut I’ve ever tasted and is so smooth… I can’t resist them. You can buy these at the outdoor markets in Santiago, but they’re much more common in the South.
- Maqui: If you’re looking for a natural way to paint your tongue a ridiculous color, maqui berries will leave your teeth and tongue a midnight purple that’s enough to make anyone laugh. The Mapuche have long used them for health benefits as well as to dye clothing. We brought back a couple kilos from Papi Tilo’s house, and my mother-in-law (Eulogia) immediately dried them in the sunshine and stored them in the freezer. She rehydrates a tablespoon or so to eat with breakfast.
- Murta/murtilla: One of the many fruits Eulogia uses to make jams. We also tried a little aguardiente with murta (called murtado, a typical southern licuor) that one of Edwin’s aunts had made down in Reumén.
- La rosa mosqueta: Eulogia dedicated an entire day to making about fifteen jars of the complicated mosqueta jam. The rose hips have to be boiled in water for some time and then passed through a cloth or very fine sieve to separate out the seeds. The tricky part is that the rose hips have many tiny thorns, but somehow Eulogia did not get pricked.
- Chupón: Some of Eulogia’s siblings brought these unique bundles of white chupones, which means pacifier, up from the South. This fruit comes from the plant Greigia sphacelata, which is related to the pineapple and endemic to Chile. (To look at a couple more pictures, check out this blog.) The chupones come from the part of the plant below the ground; you have to harvest a packed-together cluster , and once the cluster is dry, you can tug out one spiny leaf at a time. At the bottom, you’ll find the white, sweet fruit with black seeds. And they get their name because you just want to suck out all the goodness from them!
- Nalca: Chilean rhubarb is like GIANT, sour rhubarb that tastes delicious with a little salt. It’s incredibly common in the South of Chile, especially in Chiloé, where I have my first and fondest memory of nalca.
As a brief thought, I would like to comment on the fact that Chileans are often said to not like strong flavors–many of their cuisine is prepared with little to no spices, their bread and cheese is often bland, and their beer is either sweet or weak. But astringent foods, those that make you pucker and leave your tongue feeling rough and dry, are somewhat common and well-loved here: quince, persimmon, maqui, wine… all foods that seem to have strong tastes to me. Just a thought. Also, can we talk about the word mouthfeel?