Chile’s unique cuisine reflects its equally unique geography. This ribbon-shaped country snakes down the western side of South America, occupying more than 3,000 miles of coast and stretching from tropical jungles in the north to arid plains in the south. These geographical quirks gave birth to Chile’s diverse and delicious cuisine, thanks to ingredients like tropical fruits in the north, delicious seafood all along the coastline and world-famous beef in the south. In both Chile’s geography and cuisine, there’s something for every taste.
Both indigenous cultures and the Spanish invasion heavily influenced Chilean cooking—a trend common in most South American nations. The culture of the Mapuche, the predominant Chilean indigenous group, gives the country its wealth of dishes that utilize potatoes, beans, seafood and corn. That last ingredient might surprise you, though. Chilean corn, like Colombian and Peruvian corn, is thicker and drier than the American variety, and it’s almost savory. The Spanish introduced many ingredients that became staples of the Chilean diet: wheat, pork, lamb and, of course, beef. On top of that, factor in the waves of immigration from Italy, Germany and France in the 19th and 20th centuries, and you have an idea of the diverse influences that have shaped Chilean cuisine.
Today, Chile is famous for its seafood and its wine, both of which are plentiful across the country. All Chileans have individualized relationships with their country’s cuisine—a food scene that might not be exactly what you expect. While traveling in Chile, make sure to take the time to appreciate all the country encompasses, in terms of geography, culture and, most importantly, food.
The Dining Experience in Chile
Chilean cuisine was, until recently, fairly simple and mostly in the classic Chilean Creole (or Chilean-Spanish) style. In recent years, though, the country, especially Santiago, has become a destination for foodies and adventurous eaters from around the world. Today, you’re as likely to find a homey meal in the Creole style as you are to find exotic fusion restaurants or swanky international cuisine.
Classic Chilean food, or comida tipica, is food for working-class people. It consists of meat, beans, corn and vegetables. It might not astound you with new flavor combinations, but it’s affordable and certainly gets the job done. You’ll find this food throughout the country, and it’s typically served at small restaurants as part of a fixed menu (plato del dia or menú ejecutivo). You’re not likely to pay more than six US dollars for a hearty meal at one of these places. Another variety of classic Chilean restaurant is the parilladera, or steakhouse. Here you’ll find plates of grilled meats, which are served either as individual dishes with french fries or as a platter to share. You can find famous Patagonian beef in Chile, but it’s likely to cost a bit more than in, say, Argentina.
On the other hand, upscale Chilean dining offers a wealth of options. Many restaurants in Santiago have become famous for serving delicious combinations of Chilean and international cuisine, dressing up the classics with exotic flavors and accoutrements. Additionally, a wide variety of international cuisines are available, especially in urban areas. Peruvian food is one of the most popular, along with Korean barbeque and classic French cuisine.
Typical Chilean Dishes
Chilean food depends heavily on fresh and local ingredients, and these often take priority over preparation methods. That said, here are some dishes and ingredients every traveler in Chile should try:
This classic Chilean soup is a hearty simple meal widely enjoyed by Chileans. Consisting of beef, potatoes, onions and whatever else is in the kitchen, it’s the perfect warm-me-up treat after a long day of hiking or biking. You can also find dressed-up versions in many upscale Chilean restaurants that include fresh greens or a poached egg.
It doesn’t get much more típico than this! An asado is a platter of grilled meats that’s served to share and usually accompanied by plenty of red wine. An asado is the perfect dish to order if you want to sample the wide variety of Chilean meat products, from tender steaks to spicy chorizo all the way to morcilla, or blood sausage.
● Pastel de Choclo
Classic Chilean comfort food, pastel de choclo is essentially a casserole of corn and beef. It’s served piping hot and is available in a nearly infinite array of variations. You’ll find fancier versions made with raisins, olives or different kinds of meat, but all rely on the same basic flavor: the caramelized corn on top combined with the savory filling. The result is a delicious sweet-and-salty dish.
These pockets of stuffed dough are the quintessential Chilean street food. You’ll find them filled with almost anything: spicy ground beef, chicken and corn, mushrooms and cheese or even hard-boiled egg. At less than a US dollar each, they’re a steal and perfect for a quick pick-me-up after a day of wandering the city. Don’t miss the empanadas de mariscos, or seafood empanadas.
Another hearty example of Chilean comida tipica, cazuela is a stew with its roots in corri, a Mapuche dish. Originally made with potatoes, pumpkin, corn and green beans, it’s evolved with the arrival of new ingredients and spices. Today, the dish usually consists of chicken or beef cooked with an array of vegetables and garlic, oregano and thyme. It’s served year round, but it’s best in the winters when you need something to warm up.
● Caldillo de Congrio
Made of boiled eel and a flavorful broth, this seafood stew is one of Chile’s most famous dishes. Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda even wrote an ode to it, Oda al Caldillo de Congrio. While the dish might sound a bit strange, the eel’s texture and the stock’s rich flavors make for a delicious and hearty meal. Give it a try, and don’t be surprised if you’re inspired to write a poem!
● Lomo a lo Pobre
Served for lunch or for dinner, this meal consists of a cut of beef tenderloin served with fried eggs, french fries and plantains. This greasy plate, which literally means “poor-style tenderloin,” is the perfect late-night or late-morning meal.
Backroads Pro Tip
Chile’s national drink is the pisco sour, a flavorful combination of sugar, lemon juice and pisco, a clear grape-based brandy. It’s been the classic Chilean cocktail since Spanish invaders brought grape vines to the continent in the 1600s. There’s fierce debate about whether pisco originated in Peru or in Chile, but either way, the cocktail’s worth a try!
Regional Foods and Specialties
Chile’s varied geography and climate lead to significant differences between its regional cuisines. While Santiago is a foodie’s paradise, here are some delicacies worth trying in the rest of the country:
● Machas a la Parmesana
This dish is a classic example of Chilean-Italian fusion. Invented in 1950 by a pair of Italian immigrants, it makes use of the Italian cheese parmesan and machas, a native Chilean species of saltwater clam. Available along most of the coast, these oven-baked morsels are delicious and a great way to experience Chile’s Italian heritage firsthand.
● Pastel de Jaiba
This dish, local to the central and southern Chilean regions, is a kind of pie or thick bisque made with cheese and jaiba, or crab. It’s a delicious, hearty meal that’s served bubbling in a thick metal bowl. Farther south you can find it made with centolla, or king crab. Be careful, though. That bowl is hot!
● Plateada con Quinoa
Long before it was trendy in the United States, quinoa was a staple of Mapuche cuisine, and it’s still popular among norteños, or the residents of Chile’s northern regions. In Chile’s tropical north, quinoa is often served with a cut of beef (plateada) or, if you’re feeling adventurous, a llama or alpaca steak.
This Chilean king crab is famous for its tender meat and delicate pink color. Found mostly in the south, where it lives in the frigid Pacific waters, centolla is a true Chilean delicacy. It’s only available from July to November, so plan ahead!
● Rica-Rica Pisco Sour
This variation on the classic pisco sour uses rica-rica, an herb that grows in the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. If you find yourself adventuring in the Chilean northern highlands, give one of these drinks a try. The herb, something like sage, adds a special flavor to the drink, making this cocktail the perfect thing to take the edge off after a long, hot day of hiking.
Chilean Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
· Beef: Res or carne
· Fish: Pescado
· Chicken: Pollo
· Small snacks, usually served at a bar or a cantina: Bocas or boquitas
· Rice: Arroz
· Crispy fried pork skins: Chicharrones
Words to Know When Dining Out
While many Chileans, especially those in Santiago, speak basic English, they’ll certainly appreciate if you attempt a little Spanish. Here are a few simple phrases to get you started:
· Could I have the bill, please?: Regalame la cuenta, por favor.
· I’m a vegetarian: Soy vegetariano.
· Waiter: Mesero
· Bottled water: Una botella de agua
· Tap water: Un vaso de agua
· Restroom: Baño
· Bon appetit!: ¡Buen provecho!
A 10 percent tip is standard at restaurants in Chile, but it’s usually already included in your bill. Tips above 10 percent are always appreciated for good service. Unlike in the United States, there’s no need to tip here at bars or casual restaurants without table service.
Chile, like Argentina, operates on a more European-leaning schedule than the rest of the Americas. Dinner is typically served between 8:00 p.m. and midnight, and it’ll last awhile—especially if you’re with Chileans, who love to end the night with a drink or two (or more!). For Chileans, lunch takes precedence over dinner as the day’s most important meal. You’ll still find full serving sizes in international restaurants, but at establishments serving comida tipica, don’t expect more than a snack for dinner.
If you’re waiting for the check, don’t be afraid to ask. In Chile, it’s considered rude to bring it unprompted because it might appear as if the server is rushing you out of the restaurant.