A common complaint throughout Chile after the Fiestas Patrias is that we’re all getting a little chubby (rellenito, as a Chilean would affectionately say) – usually heard over a plate of freshly baked empanadas or piping hot sopaipillas. And living in Chile has been the demise of more than one vegetarian or vegan, who find out too late that those tasty chicharones are really pork drippings.
But let’s not throw too much blame on Chile: traditional Chilean food is actually quite healthy, since it’s based on seasonal produce, lots of salads, and fruit for desert.
Here, a lapsed vegetarian shares three tips for eating well – and healthily – while living and traveling in Chile.
1. Shop for groceries a la chilena
Meet the great Chilean marketplace, the feria. These open-air markets are the best way to eat fresh, seasonal produce all year round. Make it a weekly routine to visit your neighborhood feria, strike up a relationship with some of your favorite vendors, and enjoy the bounty of Chile’s harvests! After all, Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of fruits and vegetables, and ferias are a great way to take advantage of all that fresh food while also taking part in your community. (And don’t miss This is Chile’s round-up of the best ferias in the country, here.)
2. Asian markets and tostadurías
This Andean country is home to thousands of Asian immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, and India. Most medium-sized cities will have an Asian market, where you can stock up on fresh tofu, wheat-free rice noodles, and dairy alternatives like coconut milk and rice milk. In Santiago, be sure to explore the network of Korean supermarkets in the cosmopolitan Recoleta neighborhood, next to Bellavista.
The little natural food stores known as tostadurías are likewise found in most cities and stock whole-wheat flour, dried fruits and nuts, soy meat, and quinoa – a delicious Andean grain with lots of protein, making it a great food for vegetarians, vegans, and people who don´t eat wheat flour. In Santiago, keep an eye out for Tostaduría Talca, where you’ll also find treats like whole spices, healthy snacks, and a cheap vegetarian lunch menu.
3. Talk about what you’re eating
There’s a common misconception – the basis of many traveler anecdotes – that it’s hard to explain vegetarianism in Chile. It’s true you have to pick your audience: asking the street vendor selling hot dogs if you can have a completo vegetariano will probably get you a hot dog topped with pickles. But there´s a growing vegetarian movement in Chile, and people in all countries love to talk about food.
It’s always easiest to cook for yourself, but if you’re a vegan living with a host family, explain your dietary needs and be sure to point out the foods you like so that you don’t get written off as manioso/a (“picky”). Some of Chile’s best vegetarian dishes include porotos granados (beans with pumpkin and corn) and humitas (cornmeal cakes cooked in corn husks), but make sure you ask if there was any lard used in the recipe (manteca).
Or, if you´re a vegetarian and find yourself at a steak restaurant, ask the waiter if there are off-menu options, such as a mixed salad platter (ensalada surtida) or vegetable broth (consomé de verduras). Remember that sin carne means “without beef,” which will probably get you served a plate of chicken. Still, most Chilean menus contain a long list of salads and vegetarian sides, and with a little creativity you should be able to fill your vegetarian belly with no trouble at all.
By Jackie Seitz