What did I learn: CHILE

Santiago – Source

Chile has been a really neat country to learn more about this past month. I ended up following mainly two streams of focus – politics and food.

Before this month I only knew a little bit about Chile’s place in Cold War, but it was fascinating to get deeper scope on Chile’s recent political history – The Chile Reader was indispensable. I learned more about Chile’s shift first towards socialism, then Pinochet’s coup and it’s ongoing influence on Chilean literature, and then the incredible plebiscite that democratically removed Pinochet. Chile’s modern politics are also interesting, particularly their recent leaps forward on LGBTQ rights (I strongly recommend A Fantastic Woman), and the strained relationship with Indigenous peoples that feels very familiar as a Canadian.

As for the cuisine – what a delight this month was! I had no exposure to Chilean food apart from wine before this month, but there’s so many great dishes. I got to try two Chilean restaurants on opposite sides of Canada – Vancouver’s Puro Chile and Montreal’s La Chilenita. As for dishes, I tried pebre, a completo (with jote), a chacarero sandwich, Chilean empanada and salad, spicy mashed potatoes with merquén, and po’e from Rapa Nui. It was fun to taste-test Chilean wine with my dad, as was learning two good pisco cocktails – the Chilean version of a pisco sour, and a pineapple-basil camahueto.

Chile is definitely on my list of places I’d like to visit – particularly the Atacama desert, with their stunning night skies and beautiful landscape (and giant hand!)

Hand of the Desert in the Atacama – Source

CHILE: A Fantastic Woman (2017)

A Fantastic Woman starts with a tender couple, Marina and Orlando, on a romantic date night. Later that evening Orlando suffers an aneurysm – they rush to the hospital, but it’s too late. Marina’s world begins to fall apart, not just from her grief of her lover’s death, but also that it brings her into close contact with Orlando’s estranged wife and family, whose anger at her is piqued not just because she was Orlando’s girlfriend, but also that she is transgender.

Marina grieves as her life is upended, and her last connections to Orlando are severed and she navigates the humiliations, large and small, that are thrown at her. It’s a powerful and moving film, with exceptional acting by Daniela Vega as Marina. It won an Oscar in 2018 (the first with a trans performer as the lead), and the film helped push through trans rights legislation that year in Chile to protect gender identity and allow for easy changes of names and gender on official documents.

CHILE: Empanada chilena

I decided to do a little day trip from Ottawa to Montreal this past weekend, and stopped for a snack at La Chilenita, a Chilean sandwich shop on the Plateau that specializes in empanadas. They had all sorts of flavours, but I went for the empanada chilena – the classic Chilean filling of ground beef, onions, hardboiled egg, and olives (most also include raisins, though not in this case).

The dough was great, crispy and handmade – adding olives into the filling gave it a salty punch that went with the generous amount of onion. It made a nice filling treat for what turned out to be a rainy day!

CHILE: By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile is a slim novel, intriguingly set as a disjointed stream of consciousness of a dying priest. However, it is thick with Chilean history (I’m glad I finished The Chile Reader first) and with deep symbolism. The priest’s ramblings recount his life as a failed poet and successful literary critic through the mid-century and into the Pinochet regime and after. The little vignettes in the novel seem to give scenes of haughty art intelligentsias, trips to Europe to study church restoration and falconry, and unpleasant surprises at soirees, but they build up to an incredible portrait of cowardice, inaction, and self-justification in the face of evil.

CHILE: Camahueto

At the start of the month I shared my attempt at a Chilean pisco sour with the Chile subreddit. There were lots of positive comments, and one user suggested another pisco drink, the camahueto. A camahueto is a mythical one-horned bull from the Chiloé archipelago in southern Chile – if you plant pieces of its horn, new camahuetos will burst from the earth with such force as to cause landslides.

To make a camahueto:

3 parts pisco

2 parts ginger ale

1 part goma syrup

basil leaves

pineapple cubes


Reddit user ctccl

Goma (or gomme / gum arabic) syrup is a bit tricky to get, so I’m going to use simple syrup instead. They’re both neutral sweeteners – the gomme syrup really just makes things a bit smoother texture-wise. It’s also used for frothed egg drinks like Peruvian pisco sours to keep the froth up. I’m also going to use a non-alc ginger beer instead of plain ginger ale, normal ginger ale in Canada is really bland.

Oh that’s tasty. Ginger, basil, and pineapple go great together, and the bright smooth pisco melds in perfectly. Eating the pineapple chunks after finishing the drink is mandatory, they soak up the other flavours and are a treat on their own.

Addendum: The Chilean subreddit has informed me that this is an extremely uncommon drink – I’ve only found one or two other references to it online, however, the other reference is from a Chilean pisco cocktail book. It’s still delicious.

CHILE: No (2012)

Chile’s 1988 plebiscite on Pinochet’s rule is astounding to me because it’s one of the rare times a dictator has voluntarily stepped down after losing a fair vote. No is a 2012 Chilean film that follows an advertising executive brought onto the No campaign, who successfully helps with the victory, but at the cost of his own previously safe existence under the Pinochet regime. It has the urgency and momentum of a campaign, but with the emotional depth that even a “win for the good guys” is usually tempered by reality.

The setting of 1988 is pitch-perfect, including using actual No campaign ads and filming the movie itself with old 80s video cameras to get that specific patina. The actual content of the film stirred much debate in Chile – questions were raised about the focus just on the television campaign over the real life grassroots work that went into securing the vote, as well as on all-powerful marketing over people’s real political desire for change. Still, it is a powerful, complicated movie that does not wrap up on the “happy ever after” as you think it might – just like in the real world.

CHILE: Rapa Nui po’e

I’ve been getting a lot of great recipes from mainland Chile, time to try one from Rapa Nui! Po’e is a dessert made from flour, bananas, and grated squash or pumpkin – traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground, but now more usually done in an oven. It’s eaten all through Polynesia – it’s common in Tahiti and the Cook Islands.

The best sources for Easter Island-specific recipes I could find are in Spanish, so I translated a recipe from Normitagana’s Chilean cooking blog. It’s got bananas and grated squash (I used butternut) as well as coconut. It’s a pretty easy and straightforward recipe, and it has a lovely scent of baked bananas as it cooks.

Has a consistency halfway between pudding and cake, and it’s pretty sweet. I’m not normally a huge coconut fan, but this is a nice subtle flavour combo, kind of like if you made a less-cakey version of coconut banana bread. This feels like you could make some interesting non-traditional variations of this recipe – add some nutmeg or maybe use glutinous rice flour and steam it for a mochi texture.

CHILE: The Chile Reader

The Chile Reader may be a total tome (600 pages) but it is an absolutely ingenious way to cover a nation’s history and culture. It’s split into roughly chronological chapters made up of excerpts from primary documents – letters, political documents, fiction, poetry, and more. The earliest document is from the 1540s and the most recent from 2010. Each document has a clear explanation of context, as do the chapters – it’s a fantastic way to learn more about a place.

Since it’s all primary documents, it’s a bit light on pre-colonial Chile, but it follows from early Spanish colonization and Mapuche resistance, Chilean independence and growth through the 19th century, the development of both leftist and authoritarian politics through the 20th century, Allende’s short attempt at socialism, Pinochet’s US-backed coup and the years of the dictatorship, the peaceful referendum that ended that dictatorship, and Chile’s current political and cultural situation as a capitalist democracy with strong social justice movements challenging the country’s status quo.

The selection of primary documents is top notch, and it really exposes you to the deep political thought that’s run through Chile’s history. Excerpts from Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s two Nobel laureates, as well as other great pieces of fiction pepper the work. What surprised me most to learn about was how the Pinochet dictatorship ended not just peacefully, but also without a dramatic political break – Pinochet stayed on in public life for many years and left a deep political imprint on modern Chile.

There were many readings that gave me serious food for thought – not just about Chile, but about my own country as well. What caught my attention, as a Canadian, were the discussions on (over)reliance on resource extraction, relationships with Indigenous peoples as a colonial settler country, and charting a balance between economic growth and fighting inequality. While Canada has not had the same huge swings politically that Chile has dealt with, these are all issues that we struggle with here just as much as Chileans do, and it really adds important perspective to see these issues through another lens.

CHILE: Chilean Antarctica

Villa Las Estrellas, Chilean Antarctic Territory – Source

Antarctica has been treatied off as being only for science (and in reality a small amount of military and tourism), but connected with Chile’s scientific and military bases, there’s an actual, real town! Villa Las Estrellas is the largest (of two) civilian settlements on Antarctica, with a population that fluctuates between 150-80 people. There’s a school and three children have even been born there.

The video below gives a bit more context on Antarctic treaties – Chile’s claim to territory is partially contested by both Argentina and the UK, which leads to Chile being a bit more vigorous in its assertions. Antarctica often appears on Chilean maps, Chile defines itself as a tri-continental country (South America, Oceania, Antarctica), and sometimes weather for Villa Las Estrellas is given in news broadcasts.

CHILE: Chilean Rodeo

The tradition of rodeo and cowboys extends all through the Americas – from Canada to Chile. I grew up in Calgary, which is home to the biggest rodeo in Canada (my favourite sport is the bull riding), and so Chilean rodeo is definitely in my wheelhouse!

Chilean rodeo is unique – instead of riding or lassoing cattle, Chilean rodeo involves teams of two cowboys on horseback guiding a cow and bringing it to a stop against a cushioned wall. It reminds be a bit of cutting, but a lot more physical. A brief explanation:

And a clip from a competition a few years back: