There are several theories behind the name Chile, but whether it was truly an indigenous name for the region (Chili) or some thought it was shaped like a Chile (don’t buy it), one thing is for sure, it’s not a reflection of a nation hungry for spicy food.
Quite the contrary actually. The Chilean palate likes sweets, isn’t too sure about sour or bitter flavors and tolerates very little spice in the food. It can be hard to have a conversation about the difference between a biting hot Mexican chili versus that accumulating increase in temperature when eating curry at your everyday conersation here in Chile.
But while that is a strong first impression and a general truth, there are plenty of exceptions, some of them Chilean and others coming hand in hand with new flavors brought by immigrants and newcomers to this country.
Here are 5 ways to get your daily recommended dose of spicy kick:
• Pebre- Chile is a country of contrasts and contradictions and pebre is a great example. In a country where people are very hesitant to eat spicy food and you rarely find ground pepper on the table spread, would it make sense that nearly every restaurant, food stand or home gathering would include a spicy table sauce? Luckily this is the case. There are several variations of pebre, one more popular, mass market version that is soupier, with plenty of oil and merken (see below), along with onions, cilantro and a bit of tomato. Usually this is the hottest rendition one can find.
But you can also find it with fresh chopped tomato, onions, hot pepper, cilantro, maybe a touch of oil, salt, garlic and lemon juice. Chileans normally eat it with bread before the meal but it’s great to spice up a dish that needs an extra kick.
• Merken- The condiment of the Mapuche nation which hails from the south of Chile. Take a red hot goat horn pepper (cacho de cabra), hang it, dry it, and smoke it (meaning let smoke pass over it don’t roll it up you’ll regret it). It’s then mashed down into a fine powder with a kitchen mortar and pestle along with toasted coriander seeds and a bit of salt. Has a smoky flavor with a slight bite. Depending on the pepper and the size of the flakes you’ll get a varying level of spiciness.
When it has thicker flakes and includes the pepper seeds it can be powerful. But above all this condiment is about taste and can be found in most decent restaurants, markets and food stores. It can be used to condiment dishes, eggs, meats or as an ingredient or additive in cheese, olive oils and other processed foods.
• Aji “Chileno”- This could mean a couple of different things. One it could be a green pepper which is actually Aji Cristal. Normally a light green this pepper is served on sandwiches and normally on hand at restaurants if you ask. It has a strong bite at first that fades quickly. It’s a very fresh pepper, almost like a bell pepper with a higher spice factor. If you ask for aji you could also wind up with a premade sauce made with the red goat horn pepper. It’s got a strong flavor and despite the bite it adds can at times be overwhelming for a more delicate dish. Normally dumped onto hot dogs, sandwiches and pizzas.
• Salsas Decamacho- You could try to group this into the Aji Chileno category above but it deserves its own mention. One of the few brands of great hot sauces in Chile. The brainchild of Marco Camacho, the brand has a wide selection of different hot sauces with Andean and Chilean inspiration.
Our favorite? A greenish sauce with seven different Latin American chilis: tepin, jalapeño, habanero, cristal, cacho de cabra, putamadre and infierno. The preparation uses them in a semi cooked form so they aren’t as spicy as they would be fresh, otherwise that combo could be lethal. Marco not only mixes the sauces, which include blends like Miel (honey) & Merken, Curry Ketchup, Olive and garlic, among others, he also grows the peppers, putting in the due care from seed to salsa. You can find them in grocery stores, gourmet food stores and even in the Mercado Central, Santiago’s central fish market.
• Neighbors near and far- One advantage of Chile’s economic growth and stability is a steady flow of immigrants that bring with them their tastes and products. This could apply to a wide variety of cultures, from Californians selling spicy nachos in the California Cantina, or the variety of mid to high market restaurants with food from Thailand, India, Mexico or beyond.
However there are two cuisines that you can find in an authentic, delicious and affordable setting. Peruvian is the best example. In this case it goes far past restaurants, which are a result of a growing Peruvian community. Head to the main produce market La Vega Central and you’ll find three long rows of vendors dominated by Peruvian stands. Apart from delicious cream based sauces for cooking you can pick up fiery rocoto or aji amarillo, Peru’s flagship peppers.
The other authentic and spicy option in Santiago is Korean food, which is also probably the most exotic food you will find down here in Chile. You can get all the typically dishes or condiments, like kimichi, along with pork, tofu or vegetable dishes, soups and BBQ platters. For a fancy meal check out Korean BBQ or head a couple of blocks for lower priced but very complete and delicious spread at Seoul. Both are in the Patronato neighborhood (but neither have a webpage).
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