“Pero, por qué Chile? But, why Chile?” Maria asks, brow furrowed in confusion as she folds her hands over the tabletop. We are at Claudia’s house in Chaiten and Claudia had invited her friends over to speak with us about local food.
Her husband, Abraham, sits beside her, pouring water into a cup of fresh Maté, an herb taken infused with hot water. He also looks concerned over our curiosity, our desire to write about Chilean food.
“But Chilean food is too simple. Other places are better.” They say.
We smile but shake our heads. “Chilean food is wholesome. From earth and sea to table. Fresh ingredients, fresh herbs. It is delicious.” It is not the first time the locals have questioned our interest in their food. Chilean food is like a diamond in the rough. They just don’t realize what they’ve got. And just because it isn’t internationally renowned doesn’t mean it isn’t worth sharing with the world. Which is why we have undertaken this culinary expedition in the first place.
Maria and Abraham have lived in Chaiten for most of their lives, except for the 5 years after the volcanic eruption, when they were forced to live elsewhere. The cazuela, or stew, that Maria is going to cook for us is a family recipe, handed down from her Chilote Grandmother, a woman who lived all her life on the large island of Chiloe in the lakes district of Southern Chile.
Cazuela de Luche is a regional dish, found only in this part of Chile where Luche is gathered and can be transported fresh from the icy Humboldt current waters. Luche is a leafy, gelatinous algae found in the intertidal zones around the Chiloe archipelago. It is gathered by hand at low tide—un vegetal de la luna, vegetable of the moon—pulled from the rocks around which it grows.
Luche has been prized for generations and was a known delicacy of the conquistadors who traded the locals for processed bricks of the algae. Today, it is still found at the hands of locals, sold or gifted from person to person. Maria purchased her block from a friend in nearby Santa Barbara. The brick cost her 3,000 pesos, or 5 USD.
“Luche will raise the dead. It is good for energy.” Claudia adds.
The next afternoon, after Claudia’s tour and story of Chaiten, we gather back at her house for the cazuela. Maria brings her brick of Luche, fresh herbs, and a large pot. We are going to make two giant pots full of Cazuela, so that there is enough for everyone. After all, Cazuela de Luche is comida de tropa or food for the troops, a large meal meant to be shared, a unifying dish made from native fauna and Spanish cooking technique.
It took us a couple of tries but eventually we found all the ingredients we needed in a couple of local markets. I find this is common when shopping in the smaller towns of Chile. There are lots of small markets and housefront stores but they only carry a small selection of items. The only constants from store to store are sodas and sweets. When it comes to fresh vegetables, it can be hit or miss.
|4 oz per person||smoked ham||Because we could only find frozen cuts of ham, Maria cleaned and thawed the meat in hot water. Obviously, when making soup or stew, bone-in is best.|
|3 medium||carrots||Maria peeled the carrots, slicing two (about 1 cup) and grating the other one (about 1/2 cup).|
|1 head||garlic||Peeled and minced|
|1 glug||vegetable oil||This translates to about 1 tablespoon and then some.|
|2 medium||red pepper||Cut into large fat slices|
|1 cube||costillar boullion||This is essentially pork rib boullion.|
|2 medium||yellow onions||Julienned, or “pluma”|
|1 medium per person||red potatoes||Cleaned and peeled, set in a bowl of cold water until ready to use|
|2 two-inch cubes per person||zapallo||Zapallo is the Chilean pumpkin or squash. It is most similar to the acorn squash. Zapallo is sold by the slice at most markets in Chile as it is quite large, sometime weighing as much as 20-40 kg.|
|1 per person||corn||Loose kernals will NOT do. You must find corn on the cob and slice them into little rounds. We visited three stores before we finally found what we needed.|
|1 cup||habas (fava beans)||Shelled and soaked in cold water|
|1/2 cup||white rice, short grain|
|2 cups||luche||Maria tore the luche in small chunks from the brick and rehydrated them with lukewarm water. She rinsed and strained the algae a couple of times before it was ready to use. Pre-cooked, the Luche is fiercely salty and briney. After washing, the flavor is subdued but still deliciously pungent. Very umame.|
|1 teaspoon||aliño completo||This is a common dry spice mix used in Chile. It contains: oregano, cumin, red pepper, garlic, and salt.|
|1 1/2 tablespoon||oregano, fresh||Leaves removed from the stems and finely chopped.|
|2 tablespoons||green onion||Diced|
|1 cup||cilantro||Remove the stalks and finely chop the leafy portion|
|Pinch to taste||merken||A dry spice made from the Cacho e Cabra pepper|
|Drizzle to taste||olive oil||For serving|
The first step is obvious, as you can see from the chart above: clean and prepare the ingredients. They call this “mise en place” in culinary schools. It is a French term that means “everything in its place.” The idea is to gather everything you’ll need near to hand and perform all the intense prep-work in advance so that you can concentrate on the art of cooking. At Claudia’s house, this was a group effort, with Mark chipping in while I took notes and photos.
Once everything was prepared, Maria set to work, dividing the ingredients between two large pots. The most technical part of this meal was the ingredient prep. The cooking itself was simple.
First, Maria put the cuts of ham, the mix of grated and sliced carrots, and the minced garlic into the pots with a glug of vegetable oil. She followed this with the sliced red pepper, the julienned onion, the costillar boullion, and a teaspoon of salt. We transferred the pots to the stovetop and she turned up the flame to high. Maria put on the lids and let the food sweat and the meat brown for 3 minutes.
Then she added enough cold water to just barely cover the meat hunks. She brought the water to boil for roughly 15 minutes. The idea was to ensure that the meat cooked first, giving it plenty of time to loosen from the bone and fall-apart in the pot. Following this, in went the potatoes and zapallo, the corn-on-the-cob rounds, and the cazuela was brought to a boil again for another 15 minutes.
Finally, Maria added the Habas, the rice, another teaspoon of salt, and finally the prized luche. When the potatoes became tender, the cazuela was ready. She sprinkled a teaspoon of Aliño Completo and the fresh oregano and green onion over the bubbling broth and with a tap of the spoon at the side of the pot, she declare it time to eat. When serving the steaming bowls of cazuela, she recommended we garnish it with a pinch of cilantro, merken if we liked spice, and a fine drizzle of olive oil for good luck.
What can I say about this dish to justify its complex and delightful flavor? As the clouds settled in a blanket over the small town of Chaiten, we gathered around a merry table in Claudia’s house, sighing and exclaiming over the rich and warm spoonfuls of broth and meat. The luche floated and danced around our spoons, its texture light but flavorful. I had never tasted a better soup. It was true. I’m one of this planet’s biggest soup-lover’s but I could not think of a single soup or stew to top this one. And this wasn’t just a passion of the moment – I still find myself thinking about it, imagining another bowlful.