The Uncanny Valley of Peruvian Food in Chile
Food motivates a lot of our travel, but we headed to Chile to cross Patagonia off our bucket list. In regards to the food, we tried not to set our expectations too high since many travelers grumble about the food in Chile. And to be honest, having a hot dog as the national dish wasn’t super inspiring1. Nevertheless, I read everything I could online and set out to make a list of places to try the local food.
What surprised us on arrival was how much easier it was to find Peruvian food in Chile than traditional Chilean food.
When we visit a new country, we generally seek out small hole-in-the-walls serving traditional food. These eateries go by different names in different countries. In Chile, they are called “picadas.” We spent a month in Santiago before heading to Patagonia during which we aimed to visit one or two of these restaurants each week. Some of these picadas were hard to find even when we had the address. Conversely, it seemed that you couldn’t walk more than a few blocks in Santiago without seeing a Peruvian restaurant.
It seemed that for every Chilean restaurant we ran across in Santiago, we saw a dozen or more Peruvian restaurants.
The integration of Peruvian dishes into Chilean culture seems to run deep. When we went to a wine tasting at Concha y Toro, most of the suggested pairings the sommeliers rattled off were Peruvian dishes! Many menus don’t seem to distinguish between Peruvian and Chilean dishes.
Back in 1999, the acclaimed Peruvian Chef, Gaston Acurio, opened a Peruvian restaurant in Chile. This was not the very first Peruvian restaurant in Chile, but it certainly paved the way for other premier Peruvian restaurants to follow suit. Nowadays, there are Peruvian restaurants of all stripes in Chile, ranging from pollo la brasa to Nikkei. Walking the streets of Santiago was a bit of deja vu for us since many Peruvian restaurants and brands including La Mar, Tanta, and Madam Tusan and chains have made their way to Santiago.
The larger relationship between Chile and Peru is complex to say the least. Part of the stereotype Chileans associate with Peruvians is that they bring their food with them when they migrate to Chile and that Chile’s city streets are full of Peruvian immigrants selling street food. The Chileans complain about the success of Peruvian food in Chile while enjoying Peruvian dishes as their own.
We’ve been spending just under six months a year in Peru so we typically wait to enjoy Peruvian food when we’re back. However, the vast presence of Peruvian food in Santiago intrigued me, and we finally decided to check out a couple of Peruvian restaurants. This post will focus on the first one. Even when a restaurant in Chile wasn’t branded as Peruvian, many restaurant menus would incorporate Peruvian dishes.
We chose Tanta as the place to try Peruvian food in Santiago because it’s familiar and is a reliable staple in our routine in Lima so we know the menu pretty well. It’s a chain but a good one. It’s innovative enough to be interesting, but also comfortable, especially after a long day at work.
The restaurant menu was familiar, serving the classics-ceviche, salchipapas, ají de gallina, and more. We didn’t notice too many things missing from the menu.
Mariela most wanted the Moradita which is like a sangria but with Pisco and Chicha Morada. Luckily, they had something similar called the Chicha Limeña punch. One thing missing from this Tanta was the perpetual 2x1 cocktail offer that the Tantas in Lima always seem to have. Of course, before she ordered, Mariela first confirmed that the cocktail was made with 100% Peruvian Pisco.
We decided to split Lomo Saltado which is always a good dish to gauge the caliber of a Peruvian restaurant. This Lomo saltado was clearly missing something … Mariela suddenly exclaimed, “Do they not have pepper plants here?!2” There wasn’t any ají in in the Lomo Saltado. Also, the sauce was a little too sweet, and the onions were still a bit raw, more like the onions in ceviche than in a saltado (stir-fry). Overall, it was a decent dinner, but not really Lomo Saltado as we like it.
For dessert, we then ordered Picarones. I thought was a bit risky since Picarones are best made by vendors on the street that specialize only in Picarones, but Mariela is the dessert-orderer. The waiter told us that it would take a while since they’d have to heat up the oil which I took as a good sign-at least they were going to make sure the oil was at the right temperature.
The Picarones were quite heavy and tasted more like flour than squash. We couldn’t finish the three picarones that came with one order.
Our disappointment didn’t linger too long. We got our bill and were able to head up Sky Costanera, the tallest building in Latin America, in the same mall complex, just in time to enjoy the sunset.
Imitation, Flattery, and Copying?
Our meal in Tanta wasn’t horrible. If we were away for Peru for say a year, we’d probably appreciate any taste of “home”. I wondered if we should keep going to Peruvian restaurants in Chile for “research,” but Mariela wasn’t enthused about the idea. However, everywhere we walked, we continued running into Peruvian restaurants advertising “Aji de Gallina,” “Lomo Saltado,” and “Arroz con Mariscos.” I couldn’t stop thinking about how Peruvian food is translated to other cultures and what makes Peruvian food in Perú special.
I feel that in many places where Peruvian food is trendy, a lot of restaurants end up selling the idea of Peruvian food while missing the essential qualities that make Peruvian food delicious. They advertise Peruvian dishes as popular combinations of ingredients. Fish and lime in ceviche and beef, French fries, and soy sauce (don’t forget the peppers!) are certainly winning combinations. However, our love for Peruvian food is not just about the combination of ingredients. It’s about the generosity and passion with with the food is served. And it’s about the ingredients which cannot ever exactly be the same, if they are grown in different soil or if the fish is from different waters.
We only spent a month in Chile so I left with more questions than answers. What makes people in Santiago so receptive to Peruvian food (versus say, the cuisine of Argentina with which Chile shares a long border)? What do they think about their traditional cusine (is it something they mostly enjoy at home)?
Santiago had more vegan restaurants than I’d seen anywhere including San Francisco and Portland. Funnily enough, we overheard a woman tell her friend that she was vegan because of fashion, not health.
People smoke a lot at restaurants, including at vegan restaurants.
Interestingly, a lot of the art featured in the Fine Art museum were copies including the sculptures in the lobby. Maybe it’s not only the food.
I’ve been to many cities that boast colorful walls and a Bohemian vibe, but Valparaiso was the real deal and actually a lot of fun to wander around. It was also nice to observe Chileans in a more relaxed setting in Viña Del Mar.
At hotels and excursions in Patagonia, we were offered a welcome drink which usually consisted of Pisco sours. The conspiracy part of my brain wonders if this was a thinly veiled attempt for the Chileans to make Pisco sours their own.
The Pisco we tried in Chile felt less refined than the ones in Peru. On the other hand, the wines in Chile were spectacular (robust, peppery, and bold are descriptors that come to mind). This includes mainstream wines, wines from smaller vineyards, and wine randomly selected from the supermarket aisle.
Despite a little bad timing, Torres del Paine, and Patagonia in general, was absolutely stunning.
We did finally have a hot dog in Chile!
A Couple of Recommendations for Santiago
One of the best places to try the completo (Chilean-style hot dog with all of the fixings) is Dominó (multiple locations including one two blocks from la plaza de la constitución). For traditional Chilean food, we enjoyed Liguria which has a number of meat-centric dishes and a nice patio area. Restaurante Ana María (Club Hípico 476) is another decent option (see first photo).
I also didn’t want to set my expectations too low either since we read that there’s a lot of innovation happening in Chilean cuisine. Because of some unexpected setbacks, we didn’t get a chance to try Borago for example so we admittedly left with an incomplete impression of the cuisine
The origin of Chile’s name is a bit uncertain, but Chile, the country name, doesn’t seem to have any relationship to chili peppers.