Lifestyle

Local Foods & Drinks You Must Try in Chile

On my recent trip to Chile, I was surprised to discover the Chilean dishes and drinks you can find throughout the country. From funky flavors in the Elqui Valley to classics in capital Santiago and seafood near the sea in Valparaíso, I tried to sample it all whenever I found it.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what Chilean foods I would find – or how many foods I tried were actually Chilean (versus Peruvian, Argentine, or Venezuelan, all cuisines of which are popular and prevalent). In the end, I’ve pulled together this list of the foods I tried and a few I couldn’t find, but which are must-try all the same. Here are some of the best Chilean foods and drinks to seek out and sample when you visit Chile.

Street Foods

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One of my favorite types of food is street food, because it lacks all pretense. It’s not fancy, there’s no presentation, you don’t need to worry about whether you’re supposed to be wearing heels or underdressed. (Yes, I worry about these things at most restaurants!) I actively seek out street food when I’m traveling because it makes me feel comfortable – and it really shows what a city or destination has to offer when everything fancy is stripped away. Here are the Chilean street foods you can’t miss.

When we talk about South American foods, empanadas top almost every list. They’re hand-held pockets of deliciousness, and the ingredients vary by country or region. That means that even though you’ve tried empanadas in Argentina or Peru or Uruguay, you’re still going to be surprised by empanadas in Chile. Even if you’ve tried empanadas in northern Chile, Santiago, or Patagonia, there are new types to try as you travel the rest of the country.

During my visit, I found two important empanadas to try: Pino and Queso y Camarones. Queso y Camarones (cheese and shrimp) is the simpler one, as the name says what it’s all about. Fresh cheese and piping hot shrimp – that’s what it’s all about!

Also keep an eye on the different shapes of empanadas you try – each one is folded differently to indicate the ingredients inside.

Humitas

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You might not know what humitas are by name, but you’ll probably recognize them when you see them. Humitas are a traditional indigenous food from pre-Colombian times, made from ground corn, onion, garlic, corn meal, and other binders and flavoring. They’re similar to tamales across most of Central America, pamonha in Brazil, and hallaquitas in Venezuela.

Humitas are usually filled with meat and seasoning, and like empanadas, they’re a great grab-and-go street food. As they’re a common food across the region, humitas isn’t strictly Chilean, but you can usually find it. Unfortunately, I never saw a humitas vendor, or you can bet I would have been all over them.

The Completo is the Chilean answer to the New York City hot dog. It’s a hot dog, topped with tomatoes, avocado, mayo, and mustard, and if you think about it – it actually sounds good! I heard that you can find the completoon street corners, but unfortunately I never saw a single vendor selling them. Salty dog, tart mustard and tomato, creamy avocado and mayo… Do they offer international delivery?

Appetizers

If you opt for a sit-down meal in Chile (which you will if you’re there for any time at all, say three days in Santiago or more ), you’ll likely encounter some pre-entree foods. Some of these magically appear at your table; others arrive because you don’t understand what the server is asking and she brings you 3x more than you can eat. No matter the circumstance, don’t be afraid: appetizers in Chile are generally delicious!

Pebre con Pan

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When my blogger friends (Ashley and Julianne) first joined me in Chile after four days on my own, I introduced pebre as “it’s salsa with bread, and it just shows up!” I wasn’t strictly wrong… even if my description was a little bit reductionist.

Pebre con pan is coriander, chopped onion, olive oil, garlic, and ground or pureed spicy aji peppers, and usually has tomatoes mixed in as well. Yes, it’s similar to salsa but it tastes totally differently – and serving it on bread mellows the flavor entirely. Also, most restaurants serve different types of pan: sliced French-bread style, little dinner rolls, crispy like bruschetta… try them all, but don’t eat too much or you won’t have room for dinner.

Caldo de Pata or Pancutras

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On one of my first meals in Santiago, a bowl of soup arrived, but I didn’t know what it was. Luckily A) it’s not scary looking and B) I’m willing to try most new foods at least one bite… oh, and C) it was delicious!

Having researched Chilean foods to compliment my notes, I’m pretty sure it was either broth from caldo de pata or pantrucas. Caldo de pata is “leg soup,” made from cow leg and hoof with a broth of onion, carrot, and seasoning – mine didn’t have that, but the basic broth seemed to be the same. I think the ingredients in pantrucas make a similar broth, but with dough dumplings – mine also didn’t have that.

The moral? Eat the soup: “[That] soup stayed with me. It resonated, waking me up, making me aware of my tongue, and in some way, preparing me for future events.” (Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential)

Machas a la Parmesana

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It’s no secret: I don’t love clams. I do love cheese though. In the epic battle between clams and cheese, cheese wins. So I’ll let you guess how I felt about machas (clams) a la parmesana (cheese).

This appetizer is pretty common, and the clams I had each time were delicious: small, sweet, and topped with salty cheese to cut through any brine flavors. Machas a la parmesana aren’t usually offered for free (like pebre or whatever soup I had) but if you can find a good deal on them at happy hour, they’re worth the pesos.

Entrees

Ah, the main course. While Chile has some delicious street food and small bites, you can get a real sense for what life is like in the entrees. Hearty and filling, these dishes are perfect after a cold day of hiking in the Andes… or a long day of tasting wine when you need something to help you soak it all up.

Pasteles de Choclo

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Walking through La Vega Chica in search of lunch on my first day in Santiago, we kept seeing this tasty looking casserole dish. Finally, we picked a spot and sat down, pointing to the dish and asking for them. While waiting to eat, we looked at the menu… what was the name of the dish we ordered? We guessed and tried to decipher words, but quickly ruled out pasteles de choclo.

Everybody knows that means chocolate cake, duhhhh.

(It’s really a miracle I don’t order more unusual food, given how little I knew of Chilean food upon arriving!)

Pasteles de choclo is not pastries (“pastele”) nor chocolate (which is not “choclo”). Actually, choclo is corn – and well, actually, the dish isn’t far from pastry, but it’s really more of a casserole, like I said. Pasteles de choclo is a corn cassarole with beef, chicken, pork, eggs, other meaty things… we weren’t totally sure we uncovered all its secrets, to be honest. (We were too to finish!)

Sango de Choclo y Camarón

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…We were too full to finish the pasteles de choclo because we somehow also managed to order this.

As you now know, I walked in to La Vega Chica a naive, hungry gringo, ordering by pointing and completely unaware of what would arrive. The waitress, wisely, took advantage of the rudimentary Spanish at our table and talked us into three massive dishes, the previously mentioned unknown soup, and coca cola con sucre (I understood that!). With the power of google, my best guess is that we enjoyed sango de choclo y camarón (corn and shrimp pudding), which is actually close to the Americanized name Ashley gave it: shrimp and grits.

Porotos con Riendas

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One day later in the trip, I wandered back to La Vega Chica on my own. I was determined to fare better than getting 3x too much food shrewdly suggested to me by the server, and to try something new. I wandered the stalls until I saw a place where people were eating a very fun combo: noodles and beans. Surreptitiously, I double-checked Google Translate, sat down, and successfully ordered porotos con riendas. Beans with “reins.” Reins like horses reins, aka noodles.

You can also try porotos granados, which uses the same base of Cranberry beans but adds corn and squash instead of reins… I mean noodles.

To be honest, it’s not the most photogenic dish. With a healthy dollop of the spicy pebre at this food stall and mopping up the broth with the bread, it was the most accomplished I felt about a meal all week!

Fried Half-Chicken & Fries

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Okay, I know: this is not Chilean food. But I saw chicken and fries on the menu so often, I feel remiss skipping it. Also, if you’re feeling a bit homesick and want familiar flavors, it’s a good choice. You can’t go wrong with fried chicken and potatoes! Most restaurants serve this as a quarter-, half-, or whole chicken. The above picture is a quarter-chicken, to give you a good sense of portion size.

Desserts & Sweets

Full yet? Of course not! Travel is for trying new things, all flavors and courses included!

Like I mentioned, I’m not too big on fancy affairs, so I love a good casual dessert, rather than the final dish of a multi-course meal. These desserts are pretty common flavors and don’t require committing to a six-figure bill (in pesos!) to reach the sweets.

After I tried copao desserts in the Elqui Valley during my first few days in Chile, I raved about it when I got to Santiago. I tried to find it everywhere, but was disappointed to discover it seems to be a northern Chilean flavor. Copao is the fruit of a wild cactus called Eulychinia acida. It’s indigenous to the Elqui Valley (hence only finding it there). It has a tart flavor that’s sweet and tart – a bit like green grapes.

I tried copao ice cream (left) and a copao mousse (right), and I’d recommend you try it wherever – if ever – you find it.

Chirimoya Alegre

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Imagine, for a moment, a scaly apple. In your mind, you’re now picturing chirimoya, a native plant of South America. Mark Twain called the chirimoya “the most delicious fruit known to men,” and its flavor is sweet and fruity, like bananas and apples and bubblegum. I tried a chirimoya drink and was hooked! One of the most common desserts is chirimoya alegre, “happy custard,” when it’s sliced and prepared with sugar.

Mote de Huesillo

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Unlike copao desserts – which I only found in the Elqui – and chirimoya – which I didn’t see in a dessert anywhere –, mote con huesillo is everywhere in Chile. It’s a popular street dessert, sold by vendors on corners in the warm months, and this cool dessert is a perfect treat on a sunny Santiago day.

Mote con huesillo is barley with dried peaches and peach juice with barley. The barley is chewy, the peaches leathery, and the juice sweet; it’s an unforgettable combination you won’t find in many other parts of the Americas, and that’s part of what makes it special.

Drinks

You’ve gotta have something to drink with all that food – and Chile has plenty of options. Below I’ve detailed some of my favorite drinks (the alcoholic ones!) to try while you’re in Chile. Bottoms up!

Pisco Sour

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When you ask “what should I drink in Chile?” it might seem like there’s only one answer. If you’re only planning to have one drink – there only is one answer! The Pisco sour. Pisco, a wine brandy whose origins are disputed between Chile and Peru, is available throughout Chile. The most common cocktail is the Pisco Sour.

Interestingly, I learned that Chilean and Peruvian pisco are made and aged differently. The Pisco Sour is made differently between Chile and Peru as well. You’ll also find bars riffing on the Pisco Sour with their own special ingredients and recipes. If you try nothing else on this drink list, try it widely and try it often.