Flavors of Peru, Santiago’s second cuisine: El Chalán
This is Chile takes a look at fine Peruvian dining in the Chilean capital. We begin with five-year-old El Chalán, where humble downtown picadas meet quality ingredients and elegant surroundings.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
The flavors may be familiar for many Santiago residents, but for El Chalán’s loyal clientele, Jimenez’s restaurant offers Peruvian standards made with care and love.
As few as six years ago, the spacious houses lining Providencia’s Avenida Manuel Montt between Avenidas Francisco Bilbao and Santa Isabel remained dark by night, much like any other well-do-to residential district.
But in 2005, Miriam Jimenez turned a white mansion on the corner of Arturo Claro into the popular Peruvian restaurant El Chalán. Others quickly followed suit, transforming this quiet neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood into an unexpected restaurant hub as tranquil and unassuming as its surroundings.
The new Chilean palate
It’s difficult to imagine Santiago – or Santiaguinos, for that matter – without Peruvian food. Though Chileans remain devoted to their delicious and comforting national cuisine, they have also eagerly embraced the complex, densely layered flavors from their neighbors to the north as a second culinary inheritance. But this has not always been the case.
Ms. Jimenez has lived in Chile for the last 22 years. On her arrival, she said, she felt “like the only Peruvian in Chile. Now there are 100,000 of us,” As the Peruvian community in Chile grew, so too did the presence of Peruvian cuisine in the nation’s capital. At first it showed up just at the simple picadas - popular restaurants serving good quality, affordable food - that still dot central Santiago, serving primarily the Peruvian population that had settled in the area.
“All Peruvian women learn how to cook. Although not all of us really like it,” Ms. Jimenez laughs. With more and more of these women entering domestic service for well-to-do Santiago families, they brought with them the smells and flavors of their homeland to the kitchens and tables of Las Condes, Lo Barnechea and Vitacura.
In these trend-setting eastern districts of Santiago, a generation of children grew up on the richly spiced and sauced preparations of Lima, Trujillo and Arequipa. This, Jimenez argues, has created an entirely new kind of demand for the more intense flavors introduced to the Chilean palate through their own kitchens.
These were the flavors that Jimenez hoped to capture in her own restaurant. Not the inventive contemporary Peruvian found at the Chilean outpost of pioneering Lima restaurant Astrid y Gastón - rather, the most traditional home cooking from her homeland.
From the tables of Lima
The dishes that have become so central to Santiago’s culinary landscape – classics like ceviche, pulpo al olivo, lomo salteado, and ají de gallina – are also, Jimenez says, the standard dishes of Peruvian home cooking.
“The biggest difference between us and other fine Peruvian restaurants is that our food is more traditional,” Jimenez says. “Everything we serve is the food you could eat in restaurants and homes across Peru,” with a particular emphasis, Jimenez added, on the seafood-heavy cuisine of her home on the northern coast.
Like many traditional foods in Lima, a meal at El Chalán is best begun with a fresh ceviche. El Chalán crafts its version of Peru’s most famous dish from the fruits of Chilean rather than Peruvian seas, and defies what Jimenez describes as a typical injunction against eating ceviche in the evening – otherwise, the five different preparations that come as part of the restaurant’s signature piqueo are prepared in typical Limeño style.
Choritos a la chalaca are served on the half shell with tomato, onion, cilantro and corn; the tender octopus in the pulpo al olivo is thickly coated in the traditional purple olive sauce. Under its seasonings of cilantro, pepper and lime, the generous mound of ceviche mixto primarily showcases the mild, almost indiscernible sweetness of the fresh fish, and all of this rests atop the tiradito a la crema roja, delicate slices of raw corvina in a sauce of red pepper and cream.
The highlight among the main plates, an off-the-menu dish first introduced by the chef only five months ago, is the delicia el Chalán, which perhaps best encapsulates the strengths of its namesake restaurant. The flavors are all familiar – arroz verde with a fresh bite and an earthy heft cilantro and black beer in which it is cooked, and the array of shellfish spooned over top rich in a creamy broth. You could probably find a similar dish served at any number of restaurants around town, but you would be hard-pressed to find it made half so well.
Jimenez is no snob about her restaurant’s accomplishments. “Food from the center of Peru is delicious. They can make marvels from cheap fish,” she says. The flavors may be familiar for many Santiago residents, but for El Chalán’s loyal clientele, Jimenez’s restaurant offers Peruvian standards made with care and love – exactly how it used to be done at home.
To contact El Chalán
Av. Manuel Montt 1616
+56 (02) 204 9089