Chile: 7 Things I Like About You

Honorable mention: this ice cream

Honorable mention: this ice cream

When I was a kid, if I called my sister “stupid” or my brother “ugly” or whatever, my parents would make me say seven nice things about the other as a consequence.

I must confess that sometimes I give Chile a pretty hard time.  I’ve been really frustrated for the past month or so, and I think I owe it to Chile to say seven nice things.

Here are some reasons I love you, Chile.

7.  Almacenes or corner stores:

In most neighborhoods, you can buy fresh bread daily by walking to an almacén within five minutes of your house.  The owner, who will probably call you mi hija, usually runs the almacén out of part of his or her house.  We have three of these within a five-minute walk of our house.

Almacenes are much preferable to a convenience store or gas station on the corner, which is what we typically have in the States.  And the funny thing about those is that they frequently aren’t really “around the corner.”  And nothing, nothing, is fresh there.  What up, food deserts!

On a related note…

From our local feria6.  Fruit and veggies!  

I love the fruit Chile has to offer.  Of course, for those of you from warmer climes, maybe this isn’t so impressive.  I’ve spoken with Colombians that feel Chile has a small and expensive selection of fruits and veggies.  But for a Vermonter, this selection is phenomenal.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, you can buy fresh produce at the weekly ferias that happen on a weekly basis in most neighborhoods.  Some highlights for me: lúcuma, chirimoya, avocado, strawberries and all of the exotic fruits I mentioned in this post.

5.  Political discussion:

While the US has tabooed socialism and communism as the most “un-American” things you could possibly discuss, Chile is a highly capitalist state whose next president will probably be socialist Michelle Bachelet.  Bachelet is running for the Nueva Mayoría, a political coalition that includes parties such as the Socialist Party, Christian Democrats, the Social Democrat Radical Party, and the Communist Party.

In the US, the moment someone begins to talk about something like socialism, a forcefield of caution begins to flicker up around the listener.  Even if the listener is a young, educated, liberal, the fear is there: is this person a nut job?

4.  People are affectionate.  

I know that in other places in the world, particularly other parts of Latin America, Chileans are considered cold and distant.  But for a gringa, the people are much warmer and more affectionate than the typical Usonian.

This makes some gringos uncomfortable.  However, I am in constant need of physical contact, and so it helps that it’s perfectly natural to touch someone’s arm during conversation or hug and kiss a person in greeting.  Back home, I’m notorious for invading people’s personal bubbles; here, I’m considered to not be as awkward as other cold gringos.

3.  Chilean poets:  

What more do you want to hear?  It’s the land of the poets—such as Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Pablo de Rokha, Vicente Huidobro, Nicanor Parra, to name a few whom everyone should know.

Go read them.  And check out my posts on Neruda’s houses.

2.  It is beautiful.  

I know I complain endlessly about life in the city—the smog and the lack of green and the ugly buildings—but Chile is much more than Santiago.  It is one of the countries with the most diverse, rich, and breathtaking landscapes in the world: the desert, the beaches, the forests, the lakes, the mountains, the strange and otherworldly Patagonian terrain, even down to Antarctica.  Unparalleled, in my mind.

And along with the diversity of terrain comes an explosion of endemic flora and fauna.  Seriously, there are almost three thousand plants unique to Chile.

Finally, and most importantly,

1.  Its people: 

Where to start with this vibrant and quirky people that I’ve so come to love?  The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Chileans is their humor.

There’s something inherent to the rapid fire Chilean Spanish that lends itself to humor.  Chilean Spanish is full of opportunities for double entendre and dripping with character.  On top of that, when telling stories, my husband’s family showcases a range of the human voice that rivals that of Mariah Carey.  That kind of expression is simply funny.

Chileans are quick to laugh at almost anything—even things they probably shouldn’t laugh about, like the numbing terror of living through the golpe militar and subsequent torture and disappearances.  Or talking about living in extreme poverty and becoming malnourished.  In these situations, Chileans use laughter as a way of connecting with others, a way of being able to express difficult times and be assured that life goes on.

My in-laws with their English class

In less serious occasions, Chileans are equally ready for a laugh.  This morning, for example, I was waiting to make a transfer in the metro.  Since it was rush hour, there was a huge mob of us waiting for the next train, which was very slow to come.  As it approached, metro workers told us to step back, as the train was going to another station.  Several people started to jokingly boo the worker, as if it were her fault, and then the majority of us began to laugh at the situation.  Granted, sometimes people really get angry with workers, but that wasn’t the case today.

So Chile, I’m sorry

…for calling you stupid, ugly, and hopeless at times; there are many things that make you special, and many things that I can learn from you.

Alright, readers; what do you appreciate about Chile?

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El Mercado Central and La Vega: Get your market on

To find Chile’s freshest fruits, vegetables, and seafood, don’t settle for Jumbo.  The best is usually going to be in ferias, outdoor marketplaces that are usually open one or two days a week in each neighborhood.  Local, portable ferias will have to wait for their moment to shine, though.  Today, we’re talking about the big fish (and seriously, if you think you’ve smelled fish before, think again): El Mercado Central and La Vega Central.

El Mercado Central, Santiago

El Mercado central

A lovely work of architecture, rich piece of history, and great place to check out the dozens of Chilean fishes and shellfishes that you’ve never heard of before, the “Central Market” has long established itself as a tourist magnet.  When passing through with my partner, the Mercado Central has provided delicious meals and a somewhat romantic atmosphere—there are usually live musicians to enhance the building’s warm, antique feel, even though there is little intimate and private about it.

pescaderíaWhen passing through with Emily, however, it was more of a fight for survival.  If you look like a tourist, they’ll be on you like stink on fish.  Right as I was about to take out my camera to snap a couple shots of the pescaderías, I was intercepted by a man asking where we were from.  Emily was quick to point out that I was, in fact, married to a Chilean.  While her plan was successful in drawing the attention away from our foreignness, it had the interesting side effect of inspiring some terrible marriage advice  “Let him have his freedom,” he told me.  “Or else he’ll run away.  It’s like fishing; get the hook in there, and then slowly reel him in so he doesn’t get panicked.”  IS EVERYTHING ABOUT FISH IN THIS POST??

Don’t be frightened away by bad marriage advice, though.  When you visit, don’t let their seagull-like enthusiasm pressure you into settling on a restaurant before you’ve had time to look around a bit.  A firm “No, thanks” will be necessary at some time or another.  As with most places in Santiago, have your money and valuables in a safe place, especially if you are notoriously a foreigner.

You can get to the Mercado Central by taking the metro to Cal y Canto (on the Yellow/2 Line) and exiting toward the street Puente.

LA VEGA CENTRAL

The largest feria I’ve ever seen, with some 500 stands and covering around 60,000 square feet, is La Vega.  This place is huge (map).

American flag in La Vega, Santiago

Emily and I, on our search for Fourth-of-July-inspired fruits, traveled past everything from cherimoya to pig heads to huge bins of olives and pickles… and most everything else anyone would want.

If you’re looking for the phenomenal spice of Peruvian cuisine, there are entire aisles of Peruvian shops.  If you’re looking for personal and house cleaning stuff, they’ve got it, too.  Need some pet food to feed the street dogs?  Got it.  In fact, there are places you can get pets, too.  Or a queen bee and some drones, if that’s what you’re into (we already had ours).

If you’re interested in reading more praise of the Vega, check out this article.  I’m not the only gringo that loves the Vega!

Photo courtesy of Christy Loftus 

Santiago, I’d like to file some complaints.

I haven’t thrown in enough facetious commentary lately, so here’s a short list of Santiago-inspired peeves…

1.  Dog Jackets: It seems that Chileans have taken it upon themselves to properly prepare street dogs for the wet, chilly winter air.  I’m not sure if this is a step toward a more caring and sustainable relationship between Santiago’s street dogs (which number between 200,000 and 500,000 according to different estimates) and the cityfolk, or if it will just be a soggy irritant to the dogs.  Judging from the look of ecstasy in this little guy’s face, I’d have to say that this effort has significantly improved canine happiness levels in Santiago…  Although it would probably be better to reduce abandonment and generate responsibility in the city’s pet disowners.Perro callejero con abrigo

Svelty cream... looks fine

2.  In the Thick of it:  For some reason, Chileans are really big fans of thickening agents.  Everyone has heard me complain about how Chile puts gelatin in all yogurt.  But did you know that they also add a hearty dose of thickeners to cream?  Or soy milk?  I certainly didn’t expect it.  Mind you, this is not curdled or sour; this is the way they want it to be.

Svelty Cream: delicious

And speaking of cream…

3.  A Bit o’ Better Butter:  A big part of what makes baking hard for us gringos here in Santiago is that the butter just isn’t the same (time for vegan baking!).  It tastes different.  It’s yellower and the texture is odd.  But most entertaining of all is that it just doesn’t seem to cream wellCreaming fail

I would not call this ideal...4.  Piteous Pizza: I don’t know where to start with Chilean pizza.  The sauce is never good, the crust is a travesty, and the toppings are probably only worth it if you were already planning on eating meat of questionable origin.  Below, I’m featuring a beauty of a specimen from Pizza Hut Delivery, but the must-see for another post are the cardboard-like discs smeared with red or orange food coloring for “sauce”… Mmmmmmm, just add cheese.  Something tells me Lunchables are better.

Pizza Hut masterpiece

5.  Pruned to Death: At some point over the course of the winter, about half of all Santiaguinos will be gripped with murderous intentions.  The lovely and sparse trees that bravely stand their ground on Santiago’s streets usually fall victim to this bloodlust.  I’m not an expert on pruning (here’s what the experts say), but I’m fairly certain that chopping off every last branch on a tree is not ideal.  And I’m not sure what the thinking is behind this, but I think it might go something like this: “Man, this tree looks ugly.  I bet it would be prettier as an exalted stump.”Over-Pruning Stumps Me

I hope you enjoyed the kvetching!

Wild and Exotic! Fruits…

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, One word: appetizingremaining 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 membrillowhich 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!Pepinos dulces at the market

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.

  • Piñones at the market in MaipúPiñon: 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 next to the plaza in Paillaco
  • 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?