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Chilean Food vs. Food in Chile

Food: It’s the reason we wake up every morning.

In lieu of exhausting my thesaurus in search of sixteen synonyms for “yummy,” I’ll take a more sociological approach to analyzing the Chilean foodscape. Fair warning: you’ll see terms like “culinary imperialism” more often than nonsense phrases like “tantalizing garnish” or “a filling salad.”

Let’s start with a Chilean anthropologist’s definition of food:

Los alimentos son algo más que nutrientes, son signos mediante los cuales las distintas comunidades comunican sus sistemas de prestigio y poder, sus creencias, así como el sustrato valórico que legitima las jerarquías y estatus de las personas y de las cosas. — Prof. Sonia Montecino Aguirre, “Conjunciones y disyunciones del gusto en el sur de Chile

In short, Montecino says that food is more than nutrition. It’s an expression of a community’s beliefs as well as a system of prestige that legitimizes the status of people within that community’s hierarchy. So what does the food here say about Chilean society?

Doña Maria

“Preparing an authentic Mapuche meal.” Photo: Daniel Bergerson, 2015.

Well, there is a difference between Chilean food and food in Chile. The first is the canonized cuisine of a colonial society blending indigenous (mostly Mapuche) and European (mostly Spanish) traditions, while the second is the modern-day menu that one can actually find on supermarket shelves and in the streets of Santiago.

Most travel writing describes Chilean food rather than food in Chile, so I’ll start with the former and leave the culinary imperialism for dessert.

Chilean Food

Welcome to my imaginary Chilean restaurant! Please, take a seat. Can I start you off with something to drink?

Our specialities include pisco sour (lime cocktail), chicha (fermented apple cider) and terremotos (pineapple ice cream with fermented white wine). Word of caution: That last drink is named “the earthquake” for a reason. Of course you should also pair your alcohol with soda. Piscola (pisco with Coke), jote (red wine with Coke) and fanschop (beer with Fanta) are quite popular, especially among students.

If you’re in a rush, we have fast food. We can whip you up a completo (hot dog bun with tomato, relish, sauerkraut and sometimes no hot dog) or a churrasco italiano (beef sandwich with the colors of the Italian flag — red tomatoes, white mayonnaise, green avocados) in no time. Alternatively, there are sopaipillas, a surprisingly filling deep fried dough with pureed pumpkin mixed in. They go well with any condiment, be it ají (spicy chili sauce), pebre (pureed ají with chopped onions, tomatoes and cilantro) or merkén (smoked chili powder).

Sopaipilla After-School Snacks Horned Melon at Market Kuchen Parrillada Wine Grapes

If you’re looking for lunch, I recommend the humitas (like Mexican tamales, but just the baked ground corn) or anempanada de pino (like other oven-baked empanadas, but with ground beef, an olive and a boiled egg). If you’re staying for dinner, standbys include cazuela (soup of potato, pumpkin and beef or chicken) or tortilla (an egg and flour omelette mixed with any number of veggies). Before the main course we’ll bring out a starter salad of stuffed zucchini, stuffed tomato or stuffed avocado.

Oh, I should have mentioned that if you don’t eat dinner, you can just have once (teatime). That includes coffee, mate or tea, sometimes with herbal infusions to fight sickness, plus bread, cheese, and, best of all, torta (cake) filled with manjar(baked milk with caramel).

Normally we’d offer seafood — charquican with cochayuyo (a thick potato-based stew with seaweed) paila de marina (a shellfish soup) or ceviche (marinated raw fish). But there’s a slight problem: despite Chile’s extensive coastline, all fishing rights are owned by just five corporations, so the harbor workers are mobilizing and we’re not selling today.

How about we skip right to dessert?

Food in Chile

According to a recent poll, when Chileans want to reward themselves, the activity of choice is, sadly, “nothing.” The second most popular reward is “going out to eat”. When Chileans do treat themselves, they prefer Chilean joints like my imaginary restaurant. However, close behind the canonized cuisine of a colonial nation are the diverse preferences of a globalized society: Chinese, Peruvian, sushi, grills, fast food, etc.

For that same reason, my experience with food in Chile goes far beyond Chilean food. I get more groceries from Wal-Mart, which goes by the name Lidér in Chile, with my host family in Santiago than with my real family in Minnesota. It only takes one night out in Santiago to learn that sushi restaurants are as frequent as fire hydrants and Chinese eateries are as big as airplane hangars.

Sugary Cereal by the Kilo Korean Coffeehouse Corner Bodega Soccer Sushi Sweets at Kiosk Burger King

Globalization, the process of businesses expanding across borders and developing international influence, affects every country. However, due to low tariffs and other free market trade policies,  Chile has an exceptionally heavy presence of transnational restaurant chains. Close your eyes on certain streets of Santiago and you’ll smell the food court of Anytown, USA: the brand-name scents of McDonald’s french fries, Subway sandwiches and Kentucky Fried sadness overpower that of all the street vendors’ sopaipillas combined.

Walking through New York’s Chinatown, Minneapolis’ Little Mogadishu or any part of Miami, it’s plain to see how other countries have pockets in the United States. Likewise, a stroll through Santiago makes clear how Uncle Sam has his fingers in the pockets of most Chileans. The executives of all-but-ubiquitous American companies like Coca-Cola must love the fact that many Chilean families on minimum wage purchase that liquid candy instead of milk.

I once saw a Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and Domino’s on the same block. That back-to-back combination might seem odd no matter where you are, but I was especially surprised to see it in Santiago’s wealthiest neighborhood. I wonder if the 1% often spill garlic dipping sauce on the leather interior of their Lamborghini as they pull out of the drive-thru.


“Food in Chile is less revolutionary than the politics.” Photo: Daniel Bergerson, 2016.

It might seem counterintuitive that families who can afford silver platters are opting for cardboard boxes, but it follows a certain logic: All things America have a certain prestige among the Chilean elite. That includes #BaconStuffedCrust.

Rubbery pizza, however, does not represent the first time that Chileans have trained their taste buds to prefer foods that function as “whiteners,” and I don’t mean for their teeth. In an effort to associate themselves with white Europeans rather than indigenous groups, inhabitants of southern Chile have reached for the German dessert kuchen rather than lemon pie, which has a more mestizo reputation, since the nineteenth century. It turns out that the Burger King is only the latest emperor in a long history of culinary imperialism. (There it is!)

By now Chileans rank among the top consumers of bread, ice cream, beer, wine and cigarettes in the world. Perhaps that explains why Chile is the third least healthy country in America, after the United States and Mexico.

For better or for worse, and it’s probably for worse, the foodscape in Chile makes me feel quite at home.


“Foreigners roll through the supermarket like they own the place… because they do.” Photo: Daniel Bergerson, 2016.


I’d recommend getting to know Chilean food not only for your gustatory pleasure but also to learn the language. Many popular sayings are born in the kitchen.

  • chorear = to mollusk (to rob)
  • destapar la olla = to uncover the pot (to spill the beans)
  • estar frito = to be fried (to not have an exit)
  • lo picante = the spicy (the people from la población, the ghetto)
  • tirarse al dulce = to turn sweet (the behavior of men trying to seduce women)
  • achoclonar = to make like corn kernels (to cozy up or squish together like sardines)

Read more on travel, education and history at The Dandruff Report.


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