While I haven’t travelled that much (yet!) one of my favorite things to do upon arriving in a new place is to check out the grocery stores. Food is such an important part of culture that, for me, a simple stroll through a market can provide a good amount of information. In Chile there are naturally some differences between the products available here and in the Midwest/mid-Atlantic United States. For starters, most jam is sold in bags that you snip the corner off to use. Mayonnaise is so adored by Chileans that stores have entire aisles with dozens of varieties. As someone who is lactose-intolerant, I was pleased to learn that there are a lot of lactose-free products available, ranging from milk to chocolate to yogurt. Bread, which holds a rightful place in the center of the Chilean diet, is plentiful, and can be found (freshly baked!) essentially every 5 feet, sold in grocery stores, corner markets, and from street vendors. Another major difference worth mentioning that doesn’t explicitly involve food is the checkout process here: as I learned, when a store employee bags your groceries you are expected (but not required) to tip them a couple hundred pesos or so on your way out.
Today’s Chilean food doesn’t differ that much from what I typically eat in the US. Bread, rice, chicken, avocados, eggs, sausage, and lentils are plentiful – there’s also no shortage of Coke products! Typical meals consist of bread, salad (lettuce dressed with lemon juice and salt) or vegetables, some form of meat, and rice. My host family is also big on what I can only describe as mashed vegetables; we eat lots of lentils, chickpeas, lima beans, and other beans whose names I do not know in English and cannot find online. Desserts in Chile are just as widely available as bread, and most integrate manjar, otherwise known as dulce de leche.
Street food in Chile is another realm of the Chilean diet. Food sold on the streets is dangerously cheap and incredibly palatable, with prices ranging from 150 pesos (about 25 cents!!) for the mighty sopaipilla to 1000 pesos (about USD$1.50) for anything from a cup of cut fruit to a fajita. You can also find freshly-squeezed orange juice, churros, and carts with a myriad of chips and cookies just about anywhere. Unlike the US people also roam the metros selling various goodies, like Super 8 (wafer candy bars that are everywhere here), gum, water, and ice cream.
While food in Chile is great, traditional Chilean food as a whole is thought to be relatively bland. Traditional dishes involve lots of choclo (corn) and meat, like cazuela, a soup with a hunk of ave (chicken), choclo, and zapallo (pumpkin). Empanadas are also easily found on the street and in restaurants; the typical Chilean empanada is filled with pino, a mix of ground beef, onions, a single raisin, a slice of a hardboiled egg, and a black olive. Pebre, a salsa made of onions, tomatoes, spices, aji peppers, and garlic, is a very popular topping. Chileans are also big on barbecues, sandwiches, and pastries; due to the large German population here German restaurants and pastries are easily found. Beverage-wise, juices here are extremely sweet and sugary, but come in a huge variety of flavors like kiwi-apple and tutti fruity. Overall, the restaurant scene is dominated by Peru, whose flavorful cuisine is considered much more exciting and inventive than Chile’s. When I asked the Chileans I know for their restaurant recommendations, quite a few Peruvian places came up. (If you’re interested, my favorite restaurant here is a sandwich shop called Sandborja located in Santiago Central. Try their sopaipilla burger – I don’t even like burgers that much but this one was truly the best burger I’ve had in my life, and probably the best thing I’ve ever eaten.) Traditional Chilean dishes are also largely being left in the past; my host mom is an amazing cook and has served me a few of her favorites that originate from the south, where she is from, but besides that I’ve heard from other Chileans that sushi, pasta, and pizza are rapidly gaining popularity. Of course the completo, or the Chilean version of a hot dog that is piled high with mayonnaise, tomatoes, and a variety of other toppings, isn’t going anywhere.
Reflecting on allergies, it’s not that difficult being lactose-intolerant here, though there are the occasional hurdles since not everyone really knows what being lactose-intolerant entails. I imagine it would not be that difficult to be a vegetarian, but being a vegan would likely present a challenge. For people who are gluten-free, Chile’s high consumption of bread, rice, pasta, and other similar products would make life very difficult. Thankfully, since our host families provide us with three meals a day during the week the only real challenges are presented when going out to eat, or deciding which food stand to stop at after class. While Chilean food might not rival that of its neighbors, food in Chile is still seriously tasty.
Below is a brief slideshow with some food-related photos from the last four months.