One of the world’s largest exporters of fruits, vegetables and seafood, Chile’s diverse climates, fertile soil and endless coastline yield an astounding variety of fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Chilean food and dining reflects this abundance, with humble preparations of outstanding ingredients defining the national cuisine, and regional dishes giving local flavor from the Atacama to Tierra del Fuego.
Meanwhile, major cities like Santiago and Valparaíso have begun a culinary renaissance in the last decade, opening world-class fine dining locations and embracing the international cuisines of the immigrant populations that have defined Chile’s contemporary urban landscape.
The practical guide
For most Chileans lunch is the largest meal of the day. Dinner is usually referred to as “las once,” a light meal late in the evening, while some Chileans, particularly in Santiago, will also have a snack along with an after-work drink in the early evening.
Be aware when sitting down for lunch that asking for the “menu” means the daily fixed price meal: a simple salad or soup to start, a choice of one to three main courses, and in some cases a soft drink and a dessert. Prices range from CP$1,500 (about US$3) at the simplest places (expect roasted chicken, fried fish, mashed potatoes and french fries) to about CP$6,000 (US$12) in places with more elaborate options. To see an a la carte menu, ask for the “carta.”
Most restaurants serve beer and wine, but some simpler establishments will not. At the end of your meal, a ten percent tip is customary and generally not included, though it’s always worth checking your bill before leaving extra.
The simple picadas of downtown Santiago offer traditional Chilean dishes like carne con jugo (stewed meat in its own juices), pollo asado (roast chicken) or arrollado (herbed pork meat rolled in a layer of fat, then boiled and sliced). Similarly simple joints for Peruvian food sprinkle the city center and neighborhoods with large Peruvian populations, serving up the richly-spiced staples of Chile’s northern neighbor. In the neighborhoods of Patronato and Recoleta, large populations of Korean and Palestinian immigrants have resulted in some of the city’s best international cuisine.
Fast food is popular among students and business people who take quick lunches at Fuentes de soda (soda fountains) around the city, especially meat and mayo-heavy sandwiches, and the classic completo.
Fine dining is concentrated in major urban centers like Valparaíso and especially Santiago, where the eastern districts of Vitacura and Las Condes are home to most of the country’s most well-respected restaurants. From fine Peruvian fare served at Astrid y Gastón or the brand-new Astoria, to classic continental cuisine served at Europeo, to exquisite modern seafood at Puerto Fuy, to the extraordinary, endemic creations of Chef Rodolfo Guzmán at Boragó, Santiago’s gourmet scene presents a stunning array of tastes and styles.
Markets and self-catering
Though the Chilean restaurant scene has grown by leaps and bounds, to eat like a true Chilean is to eat at home. Fortunately, Chilean cities all have outstanding markets, none more impressive than Santiago’s La Vega Central. You can purchase anything and everything you need here to prepare an outstanding meal.
Fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and herbs come in daily from the central valley. Meat vendors can be a mixed bag (some sell lovely fresh meats from the Chilean south, while others vend frozen goods – look carefully before purchasing), but the grains, dried herbs and fruits, and pickles on sale toward the front are consistently tasty.
The two central aisles in the produce section of the market are devoted to Peruvian vendors, selling the prepared marinades, peppers, corns and potatoes essential for their native cuisine. The market runs according to demand so prices can vary, but are generally quite low. A kilogram of tomatoes, for examples, should cost around CP$300-500 (US$0.75-1), five onions around CP$500 (US$1), and a bundle of fresh cilantro no more than CP$100 (US$0.20). Even if you don’t have a kitchen to cook in, a trip here takes you to the raw heart of Chilean food culture.
Many people come to Chile specifically to sample some of the new world’s most outstanding wines. Cabernet, Carmenere, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and even Pinot Noir are amongst the varieties of grape grown in Chile’s expansive and diverse wine growing regions, many of which are within easy striking distance of Santiago.
But wine is far from the end of the story. The Elqui Valley in the north produces pisco, the essential ingredient for Chile’s national drink, the Pisco Sour, and microbreweries throughout Chile produce some of the best beers in Latin America. Chicha, a sweet, lightly fermented grape beverage is traditional during national festivities, while in the southern archipelago of Chiloé the same made from apples is the local delicacy. Most markets will also have vendors selling fresh fruit juices pressed to order from local favorites like custard apple (chirimoya), strawberry (frutilla), raspberry (frambuesa), orange (naranja) and grapefruit (pomelo).