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    The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador are home to incredible wildlife, such as the famous Galapagos Turtle and the lesser known, but more common Red Rock or Sally Lightfoot crab (pictured). Begin Your Journey!

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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Chile

Historic Diet

Chilean Food - Cazuela soup
Cazuela soup

Due to Chile's mountainous landscape the plants and animals that can survive both the elevation and temperatures is limited. However, sitting on the ocean and having valleys protected from some weather extremes, gives the region a fair amount of plant and animal diversity in limited areas, both of which were used as the base of the diet for the earliest settlers.

Despite the geographic variations, Chile is home to some well-known foods as the potato is from the region and has always been an important part of the diet. Although the potato generally served as a base in the diet so too did quinoa, a hardy grain also found in the mountains. The lands were also home to beans and fruits, including the cherimoya and lucuma, although the areas these foods grow in are limited. There were also many other plants that provided food, including the nuts from pine trees.

The animals used for food also varied in geographic distribution, but were an important source of the historic diet. However, as most people lived in the mountain valleys or along the coast it was fish and seafood that was more important in the diet than was the consumption of mammals, birds, or other animals. Along the coast sea bass, loco, picorocosole, cod, salmon, tuna, squid, prawns, clams, and others are all very common.

Culinary Influences

Chilean Food - Empanadas

When the first people arrived to what is today Chile they came from the north (although some believe the first settlers arrived via the Pacific Ocean). At about this same time new foods arrived to the region, some of which arrived through winds and animals, while others arrived with the settlers who arrived from the north. This spread of foods included tomatoes, peppers, corn (maize), peanuts, melons, squash, cassava, papayas, pineapples, chocolate, vanilla, avocado, and other foods. Today all of these foods can be found in most, if not all South American countries, including the parts of Chile where these foods can be grown, which is primarily the central and northern valleys.

These early settlers used both the foods native to the region as well as those that made their way to Chile as important parts of their diet. From this point, into the 1400s, little changed in the diet other than in food combinations and cooking techniques.

Many people in Patagonia still use traditional cooking methods and many of their dishes are heavily reliant on the above mentioned foods. Among the many cooking techniques by the indigenous people of the country, one of the still used techniques is to place hot rocks and the food (generally a meat) into the ground essentially pressure cooking the food.

As Europeans began arriving in the region of Chile, the country remained divided as the indigenous people maintained their foods in the south, while in the north these new settlers brought new foods, cooking techniques, and dishes. Some of these dishes were brought over without any changes, but most of these foods couldn't be grown on the land so local ingredient substitutes were found. Today the foods in Chile are truly a combination of European (primarily Spanish, but also German, Italian, and French) dishes and cooking styles with South American foods and ingredients.

In addition to the Europeans bringing over their foods and techniques, they also brought over entirely new plants and animals that vastly changed the culinary landscape in Chile. The Europeans are responsible for bringing over many of the grapes the country is now well-known for as well as introducing wheat and rice. They also introduced new animals, most particularly pigs, chicken, and cattle, which led to the meat and dairy diet of the people today. Other ingredients were also introduced and are now common in Chile, although they differ in terms of popularity and importance. Some are commonly used like onions, cilantro, black pepper, garlic, and limes, but others are not as common, including broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, olives, bananas, apples, and oranges.

More than European influence, the lifestyle in neighboring Argentina and in some parts of Chile were focused on ranching and this led to the growth of asado (barbeque). As many people found jobs as ranchers in these huge open spaces, grilled and smoked meats became a staple in the diet and this trend continues today as the country is well known for their grilled meats, which are served at most large gatherings.

Since the late 1800s the diet has been constantly changing, but primarily due to technological changes. Better transportation and storage techniques allow for the importation (and exportation) of foreign foods, which are now easily accessible in large cities. During this time cooking techniques and the eating culture has also changed as fast food and already prepared frozen foods have been introduced.

Despite the recent changes, most people prefer a home cooked meal or going out to a restaurant. Again this scene has grown in recent years and large cities, like Santiago, are now home to various ethnic restaurants, which haven't changed the local foods, but rather only added to it.

When & Where to Eat

Most Chileans begin the day with breakfast, which is often small and centered on coffee or tea. Although numerous foods can be served for breakfast, many people just have a small pastry or bread with their beverage.

Breakfast is small in part because lunch is not. Throughout most of Chile lunch is the largest meal of the day and many people close shops to eat at home from about noon to 2:00 or 3:00 pm. This meal generally consists of multiple courses and usually includes soup, meats, rice, potatoes, vegetables, dessert, and coffee or tea. In some areas lunch is still followed with a siesta or nap. In Santiago and other large cities the long lunch at home is almost completely absent as people tend to work longer hours so lunch is taken at work, from a street vendor, or from restaurants or cafes. For these people lunch is generally a bit smaller as dinner has taken the role as the largest meal of the day.

Dinner in most of the country tends to be small and takes place very late, generally beginning at 9:00 or 10:00 pm. Most people tend to have dinner in the home with family, but as restaurants are growing in popularity more people seem to be dining out each year. In the cities, like Santiago, where lunches tend to be smaller, dinners take on the traditional lunch foods mentioned above. Also in the cities dinners are more commonly eaten in restaurants, especially on weekends.

Staple Foods

Beef: perhaps not a true staple, but beef and other grilled meats are so common they are the centerpiece of many meals
Bread: breads are served with most meals or are a part of meals, such as with sandwiches
Pastries: pastries are commonly served for snacks, breakfast, or dessert as they can be seen throughout the country

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Asado: this is a general term for barbeque, but is an event with both grilled meats and vegetables
Cazuela: this dish has numerous regional varieties, but is generally a thick stock with meats and vegetables
Empanada: the most common empanada in Chile consists of beef, onions, raisins, olives, and egg, but there are other versions as well
Pastel de choclo: corn-based dish filled with meats, raisins, onions, and other ingredients

Dining Etiquette

The Chileans tend to dress nicely, especially over meals with new friends or business acquaintances so if you get invited to dine with the locals be sure to dress nicely and if at a business meeting a jacket and tie are needed for guys and girls should wear a blouse or skirt. If you are lucky enough to be invited into a local's home for a meal (or "a drink," which often means a meal followed by drinks) this is a great sign of affection.

No matter where you're eating, be sure to arrive about 15-30 minutes late as this is when the Chileans tend to arrive (although for a party at a local's home arrive at least 30 minutes late so they have time to prepare).

Before sitting down let your host show you a seat as they may have a particular seating chart and men should wait to sit until women have sat down. Be aware that men and women also tend to sit on opposite sides of the table so if they insist you seat yourself, try to follow this rule, but reserve the heads of the table for the host and hostess. Once you settle in try to avoid any sensitive conversation topics like politics or religion; also avoid business topics, even if you're at a business meeting as meals are typically a time to get to know each other, but some business lunches do focus on business and can go on for a couple hours.

The table setting is similar to that of North America or Europe so most people are familiar with it, but there are a couple things to remember when eating. First, always keep your hands above the table so they are in sight, preferably by resting your wrists on the edge of the table. Next, don't begin eating or drinking until your host or hostess invites you to do so. This is usually initiated by the words "buen provecho" to begin eating and a toast, perhaps as simple as "salud" before drinking. Also try to avoid pouring wine as there are a number of rules on how wine should be poured; the two most important being to never pour with your left hand and you should always pour the bottle forward into the glass.

When the food arrives and you start eating, be sure to eat in the continental style, meaning the knife stays in the right hand and the fork remains in the left. You should use your utensils to eat everything except bread, which will often sit on the table itself or on your main plate as bread plates are uncommon. Also try to avoid cutting lettuce in a salad and if you pass food it should always go left. Try everything you are offered as this is considered quite polite, but if possible take small portions at first as you are expected to finish all the food on your plate, even if you don't like it.

As you finish your meal, put your fork and knife together on the right side of your plate, prongs down and handles facing right, with them pointing directly up. After this you may be offered dessert, coffee, tea, brandy, or another beverage, which is polite to accept. As you finish your drink and the conversation has ceased summon the waiter or waitress over (if you invited others out to the restaurant) by making eye contact and saying "mozo" (you won't get a bill until you ask for one). The inviter is expected to pay for everyone, but if you are not the host offer to help pay none-the-less. If you do pay, leave a tip of about 10%, which is considered a good tip for service at a sit down restaurant.

Celebrations & Events

Every significant event and holiday is celebrated with food, but only a couple have specific foods or drinks associated with them. None-the-less, visiting Chile during any of these events is a great opportunity to try the local foods, whether you visit during a religious or a secular holiday.

The most famous holiday in all of South America is Carnaval, which is celebrated every year on the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent, a day that usually falls in late February or early March. Compared to some neighboring countries, Carnaval in Chile may seem tame, but it's still a time when many people over consume both food and alcohol so it's a great time to see the local culture while trying numerous local foods.

Perhaps a larger celebration in Chile is New Year's when people get out and enjoy a new beginning. There are few particular foods attached to New Year's celebrations, but champagne with pineapple ice cream seems to be a favorite for New Year's Eve.

A final festival to consider when it comes to trying the local food is Campeonato Nacional de Rodeo or the National Rodeo Championships, which takes place in the city of Rancagua in late March. The ranching and cowboy industry is based on beef and barbeque so it's no wonder that grilled meats are plentiful during this event.


Chilean Food - Cola de mono
Cola de mono

Chile has all the well-known non-alcoholic drinks from around the world including tea, coffee, soft drinks, and juices among others. However the county also has a couple local drinks not as common elsewhere. These include leche con platano, which is milk and ice blended with bananas, and mote con huesillo, which is mate (made from the yerba mate plant like tea) with peaches. Of course they also have mate, which is made from the yerba mate plant; this drink is common throughout much of South America.

When it comes to alcoholic beverages in Chile, it starts with the locally produced wines. Chile has a growing reputation in the wine world and is well known for its Malbec, but it also grows numerous other varietals. These wines are also often mixed with other beverages like soft drinks or fruit to make sangria. There are also a couple local hard liquors in Chile worth a try, including chicha and aguardiente. Chicha is a fermented drink made from corn, which was invented by the Incans and was regularly used in religious festivals. Today the drink has lost much of its popularity, but is still common in some areas. Aguardiente is similar to rum as it is distilled from sugar cane; this is a common alcohol to mix, for example with milk, cinnamon, coffee, and sugar it's called a cola de mono (monkey's tail). Beer is also popular and readily available.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in Chile, but check with locals for any particular regional differences. Also, many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: April, 2013