Overland miles: 10618 Bus hours: 321.5 Empanadar: 61
Prawns For Breakfast is proud to recount the unvarnished truth about its experiences on the Latin American highway. When we see a pala, well dagnammit we call it a pala. (We’ll just invariably put the accent on the wrong vowel.) So if you’ve come looking for one of those “every day we travel is such a magical experi-yah-nce, we’re so #feelingblessed right now” posts, then you should move along now kid. We’re not that kind of blog.
That said, we don’t tend to post thoughtless, knee-jerk reactions to other cultures and cuisines either. Many of our dispatches are published up to a month after visiting a destination, leaving plenty of time for careful reflection.
And on careful reflection, Chilean food almost totally sucks.
Of course, I have to qualify this statement, because, as my father taught me, generalisation is the sign of a small, er, brain thingy. Chilean food doesn’t completely suck, because they do have some epic snacks: completos, which are regular hot dogs with a shedload of avocado thrown on top (I don’t know why but avocado tastes so much sweeter in Chile), selloditos, which are kind of heavy-set empanadas, and I promise I’ll get to them as soon as I can, and those legendary lomitos, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. I once ordered one bigger that Clare’s outstretched hand: that was pretty sweet. Beyond that, I’m struggling badly.
Oh but they have so much great fresh fish and seafood, you will say, leaping gamely to Chile’s defence. Well, let me see: there’s something to be said for Patagonian king crab where you can get it, I’ll give you that. And yes, you can get a mean plate of fish and chips in Valdivia, but that belongs to the Brits; you can’t let them have that. Chileans seem to have a reputation for trout: in the seaside town of Puerto Varas Clare ordered it at Donde El Gordito, a fish restaurant so hip that Anthony Bourdain has seen fit to visit it – it was served intensely dry and we quickly discovered the reason was that it had been burnt on the underside. (They are also known for their Pisco Sours, which simply don’t have the kick or contrast that their Peruvian equivalent has.)
There is also quite a famous dish called Paila de Mariscos (seafood stew): when we tried it at a restuarant called Yiyi’s in Santiago’s fish market the presentation promised great things, as it had some crazy-ass crab claws and other stuff sticking out of it, but I’m going to let you into a little secret here: it didn’t really taste of much. It felt somehow … baseless.
And then there’s all that amazing meat, you might offer hopefully, what about the meat? Well, sorry: if you want a good steak, go east, the Argies have it covered. The most famous plate of meat you can order for lunch is called Lomo a lo Pobre (poor man’s meat), and it involves covering some well-cooked, slightly chewy piece of rump fried with onions and topped with a couple of fried eggs. Ok, the eggs are quite good I guess, but eggs will make anything taste good. Don’t get me started on Chorillana, the pub-grub fave that involves slicing greasy fried franks onto even greasier chips, and occasionally topping that with fried eggs too, just for the LOLs. Both of these should be covered at all times of course by Chilenos’ favourite condiment, mayonesa.
And that just leaves a half decent dish I tried at the well loved local Santiago restaurant, Galindo. It was called Cerdo Arrollado (rolled pork) and it was served with a ‘spicy’ potato mash that had less of a kick than vanilla essence. Well, the loin was rolled quite firmly, and baked quite competently, and overall it was a satisfyingly rustic main, but here I’m going to let you into another dirty little secret: without an atomic payload of pebre (chilli salsa) … it didn’t taste of much.
We spent two and a half months in Chile. The only reason we survived it was because partly we turned vegetarian and cooked for ourselves for one month … and partly because of the Koreans.
Santiago has been harbouring their secret culinary weapon for many decades now, since Korean immigrants settled there in droves in the 1970s. Today a vibrant Korean culture thrives across the bohemian neighbourhoods of Patronato and Bellavista, giving rise to the Chilean capital’s very own Koreatown. Having heard about the existence of this place before we arrived, and having had some experience of how good Korean restaurants could be (our own Japanese-Korean fusion restaurant in Finsbury Park – Dotori – is always booked up and an absolute winner every time we manage to reserve a table) we couldn’t wait to try it out. When our spice-loving WOOFER buddy Sam caught up with us there, and said she had never tried Korean food, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce her to a cuisine that never fails to turn the flavour knob up to 11.
It took us longer than planned to find Koreatown in Santiago, I’ll warrant you. After a few cheap beers in one of the neighbourhood’s endlessly popular after work bars, we were keen to avoid ordering a tabla of towering grease, and even keener to use the loos of our chosen establishment. But the well-hyped streets of Korean restaurants never materialised. Finally, at around 10.00 pm, as block after block of shoe stores and second hand clothing shops bared their grilled teeth, and just as we were giving up hope altogether, we stumbled upon Nirvana.
It certainly wasn’t promising anything from the outside, but as soon as we stepped inside the overlit, bare-walled canteen called Sukine, we know we had found the real deal. Great Korean restaurants abroad spend no money on luxurious irrelevancies like subdued lighting, subtle decor or working bathrooms. Instead they focus with single-minded obstinacy on making food that tastes blimmin’ brilliant. A huge, technicoloured picture menu of exactly what they were all about was the sole adornment above our table. We took one, slathering look at the illuminated billboard of food, and focused on determining the exact location of the baños.
I don’t have the space here to describe here how brilliant everything was about Sukine. One factor was the starters; completely free and replaceable on demand, they included seaweed, peanuts in soy and honey, salty dried squid strips, cubes of mouth-melting tofu and that legendary staple of all Korean meals, kimchi. A sort of cold boiled cabbage marinated in garlic, onion, killer red chilli pepper and other spices, kimchi is definitely an acquired taste, but once it’s acquired, it’s ferociously guarded. (It’s also claimed to be a natural antioxidant that lowers cholesterol.)
Another factor was the range and depth of flavours available in the many main dishes we shared, from the pitch-perfect crunchy pork gyoza (cutely translated as ‘empanaditas‘) to the punch-packing Yekkeyang (beef with glass noodles and greens), from the light and moreish ‘Korean Tortilla’ (squid and spring onion omelette) to the frankly incredible Man Du Kuk – something like a cross between a rich Japanese ramen broth and a delicate Chinese dumpling soup (except the dumplings contained more kimchi!). Or it could have just be the tray of ‘Big Ben’ toffees they gave away with the bill. Whatever the X-factor in this particular meal, our tastebuds were in seventh heaven.
For the record, I don’t think Chilean food should be consigned to the composting bin of gastronomic history. That today’s interpretations are uniformly bland and soporifically repetitive is the symptom, not the cause of the problem. All great nations have great history in their scran: Chile seems to have momentarily forgotten hers. Clare made the pertinent analogy that Chilean food now is like British food in the 70s, when we exalted in microwaved TV dinners, chicken in a basket and fondue sets. Luckily we moved on, and decades later a Modern British revolution (ironically aided and abetted by the same TV) helped us rediscover our roots, and replace our spices. Until Chile does likewise, the food of her immigrants will remain the only game in town.