Once: A guide to Chile’s oddly-named evening snack

Don’t spend your first six months in Chile, like we did, confused when your host produces tea and cakes at 8 pm and suggests “taking eleven.”

Marraqueta bread at once. (Photo: Carolina Hornig/Flickr)
Marraqueta bread at once. (Photo: Carolina Hornig/Flickr)

Meals are different in Chile. Not so much the food itself – Chile’s mostly temperate climate means the fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy are fairly similar to what you’ll find back home.

No, it’s the timings that change. And an unprepared stomach moving in with a Chilean host family is going to be especially full at lunchtime and very empty at dinner hour, unless you read up and educate your digestive system on local meal traditions.

Chileans traditionally have a small breakfast of coffee or tea to drink, some toast, cheese or ham on crackers, and occasionally something sweet. This sees them through until lunch, which is typically eaten around 2pm and is the main meal of the day. Served at home or at a restaurant as a set lunch, known as a menú, it includes a small starter, a main course and usually a small desert.

So far so yummy, but tough on the waistline if you follow it up that night with what an English-speaking expat would call a normal-sized dinner. And that’s where once comes in. You see, most Chileans don’t eat a normal-sized dinner. They eat a light, cold snack anytime from mid- to late-evening, called – somewhat bewilderingly – “eleven.”

What’s in a name?

When you eat your evening snack in Chile, you tomar once or “take the eleven.” There is no formal agreement on why once is called once. Its only meaning in standard Spanish is “eleven”, but once is never eaten as late as 11pm. Neither is it eaten at 11am, though the food eaten during oncebread, cake, jam, cheese, fruit – might seem appropriate for a mid-morning snack.

In fact, the Real Academía Española (the Spain-based authority on the Spanish language) claims that once was initially a mid-morning snack that over time moved later into the day, just like the British term “elevenses,” still in use today. Some even say that once is a literal translation of elevenses, picked up by locals from the elevenses eaten by 19th century English settlers on the Chilean coast.

A more popular local story, however, says that the term was originally a code word used by miners in the north of Chile when they wanted to sneak off for a sip of aguardiente liquor. At the time there were harsh restrictions on drinking alcohol, so men supposedly suggested a break for once, or eleven, because of the eleven letters in aguardiente.

What’s in an once?

When you sit down for your evening once, any time between 5pm and 9pm, you can expect a variety of simple, cold dishes. At the most simple end of the scale is bread: fresh Chilean bread such as marraqueta or hallulla, broken and served with butter, cheese, ham, manjar (Chile’s version of dulce de leche) or mashed avocado.

A salad of chopped tomatoes is often served alongside, with tea and coffee to drink. For a more elaborate once, typical of rainy southern Chile, sweet cakes and pastries are often included, such as German-style küchen, round “Berliner” donuts filled with cream or manjar, and other tasty treats.

As important as the food, however, is the company. Once, like “afternoon tea” in England and Australia, is a group endeavor, with family members or friends gathering round the table to talk about the day. Hosts push tea or coffee on guests and will anxiously encourage light eaters to take extras with a gentle, “¿te sirvo más?

Once you’re accustomed to the change in rhythm, a large lunch plus a light once can be a nice way to organize your meals – and gives you the chance to take a proper break at lunchtime! Not to mention the fact that once leaves some space for an asado (barbecue) and a glass of Chilean red later on….