The North American culinary scene is dominated by certain cuisines; there’s no shortage of eateries offering Italian classics, or shawarma joints serving Middle Eastern treats. On the flipside, there are cultures whose time in the spotlight is limited. Ask yourself: when was the last time you ate at a Chilean restaurant? When was the last time you saw one, for that matter? Chile has its fair share of mouthwatering offerings, yet only a few Chilean dishes are widespread in the West. To find out why, we’ll need to do a little digging. Join us as we explore North America’s relationship with Chilean food, from its most popular dishes to some lesser-known delicacies.
In North America, empanadas are easily the most prolific Chilean offering. These tasty pastries consist of a bread shell stuffed with a savory filling. Popular contents include cheese, seafood, and “pino” – a mixture of ground beef, onions, olives, and egg. Empanadas can be found in both baked and fried varieties.
While less common than empanadas, ceviche is still beloved by many Westerners. The dish is made by curing raw fish in citrus juice to “cook” it, then garnishing with onions, garlic, cilantro, and seasonings. Since raw fish is the main component, it must be made from fresh ingredients and consumed promptly. Ceviche can be eaten as an appetizer, or served as an entrée.
As the name suggests, tres leches cake incorporates three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream. The sponge has a unique texture, allowing it to soak up the flavors of the liquids without becoming soggy. Dulce de leche is spread between the layers, and a coat of meringue is added to the outside, resulting in a potent sweetness. Despite the abundance of dairy, this cake is surprisingly light.
Examining the aforementioned foods naturally begs the question: why are they so popular in North America? Beyond obvious factors, such as phenomenal flavors and the novelty of foreign cuisine, each dish has its own merits. Empanadas, for instance, embody the elegance of simplicity. Anyone can understand dough stuffed with savory ingredients. Other offerings from abroad adhere to the same format: samosas, Jamaican patties, panzerottis, etc. By contrast, ceviche’s selling point is uniqueness. There’s nothing quite like it in Western cookbooks, so eating it is an adventure – something new and exciting. As for tres leches, the appeal is simple: nothing links cultures together like a love of dessert. All it takes is a sweet tooth to understand the joy of Black Forest cake, or layers of sponge smothered in milk and dulce de leche.
Most often, Westerners find empanadas at local bakeries or corner stores. Some restaurants serve ceviche and tres leches, but eateries that truly specialize in Chilean fare are few and far between. It’s an awful shame, since Chile has so much to offer the culinary world. Take cazuela – a dish made with meat and various vegetables, which are cooked separately then brought together in a flavorful stock. Choripán—grilled sausages topped with mayonnaise, mashed avocado, and a Chilean salsa called “pebre”—are a great substitute for the standard hot dog. Then there’s sopaipilla—deep-fried pumpkin dumplings—for grab-and-go snacking, or pastel de choclo—a sweet and salty corn and beef pie—for family dinners.
These dishes, and dozens more, have been largely overlooked by the West. Empanadas are a classic for a reason, but they are only the tip of the iceberg; lovers of their flavors would surely enjoy other Chilean offerings if they gave them a chance. So, whether you’re a home cook looking to try something new, or a chef creating a cutting-edge menu, perhaps it’s time you consider Chilean cuisine.