Chow in Chile…

First off, some have noted it is tough to figure out whether it is me (Mike) writing, or Heather.  So yes, this is me.

Two weeks in Santiago and thinking maybe it’s time for a few first impressions.  My history of first impressions is poor – they’re only reliable in their unreliable-ness, based on misunderstandings and ignorance.  But hey, they’re fun to read later on, in a kind of a “how the heck could I have believed THAT??” sorta way.  So here goes…

My current dwelling is an apart-hotel, comfy enough, about ¾ mile from the office.  So I know a great deal…about the street between here and there.  I know where the Starbucks is.  I found a laundry.  I figured out the Metro (it is a GREAT subway, world class).  And I know there’s an amazing good steak house a couple of blocks away, and amazing pizza a few blocks past that.  But really, I only know the strip a few blocks wide between here and work.

That’s not to say I’ve been holed up just working and sleeping.  I’ve had the pleasure of invitations to dinner on a number of occasions, twice with the excellent folks who run the hotel we staid in when we were here before.  And I’ve gotten out to see a bit of the city, including the tour of Pablo Neruda’s house, which Heather and I missed on our first pass through Chile.

But this post is mostly about food, and I’m discovering that Chile’s reputation for not-so-spicy food is only partly deserved. Maybe a bit like England’s.  I will preface further statements with the fact that after two weeks, I would LOVE a good bowl of green chili stew, and don’t hold any hope of finding one.  But so far I’ve learned that you CAN get an excellent steak here (the best is rumored to be imported from Argentina), and you CAN get good Italian, and tonight I’ll attempt to learn if you CAN get good sushi. But yes, the day-to-day chow is not strongly seasoned.

Chile is not unique in its spare use of spices – Heather will remember that when we were in Cuzco, Peru, we treated ourselves at a small upstairs Indian place where we had a GREAT meal, both pungent and hot with curry and magical peppers.  The owner, a lady who actually WAS from India, struck up a conversation during which we were bragging effusively about her cooking.  Her response was unforgettable, and you have to imagine the accent: “So you are tired of boiled chicken and potatoes?”  She was exactly right.  That was mountain food in the Andes.

But no, throughout the world you find French restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Italian restaurants…restaurants serving the food of many, lands.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a restaurant that proudly serves Andean food. Maybe this is one of those stupid first impressions I’m destined to abandon…vamos a ver…

(edit:  since writing this, a Chilean explained to me that the food is tasty, just not spicy.  A point well taken.  Interesting point of context is that he was a waiter in an Indian restaurant.)

And this all leads me to last night, to describe my funniest food-gathering venture so far.  Tired and not in the mood to go out and sit in a restaurant, I decided to give up and try the Dominoe’s pizza place on the corner.  I had been avoiding it actively – why travel half way ‘round the world to eat what you can get down the street??  But I was tired and really just wanted something small and simple, and wasn’t looking for high quality…which is good, because here’s how it went:

The place was clean, bright, and could have been anywhere in the US.  A difference was that there was a swarm of buzzing, busy brunettes working feverishly behind the counter.  One bee emerged from the swarm and demanded my name (she must have thought I had had the good sense to call ahead, which I had not).  In the din of noise, I attempted to tell her I wanted to PLACE an order.  Again, she demanded my name.  I gave up and told her “Miguel!”  She batted furiously at a computer keyboard for about two minutes.  Finally, she looked up and asked what I wanted.  And that’s when it got funny.

I asked for a medium pepperoni pizza (the menu brags of pepperoni imported from the US!). Medium is much more food than I wanted, but it is their smallest size.  I figured I would eat half and toss the rest.  But cultural note of warning – looks like maybe the US “supersize” virus is spreading…

-Fine she says.  And what do you want for your second pizza?

-I don’t want two pizzas, I just want one.

-But you get two for the price of one – so TELL me what you WANT!?

-I don’t want two pizzas, I just WANT ONE PIZZA!

-Well, WE give two for one, and you get TWO, so WHAT KIND DO YOU WANT?? (Her frustration with the dumb gringo starting to show…)

-OK, I give up.  Give me TWO pepperoni pizzas!!

Ten minutes later I walked out the door, mumbling, in English, “what the hell am I going to do with all this pizza?”

At the first traffic light, the answer appeared.  A stooping little gnome of a panhandler, grubby and missing a few teeth, shuffled up to me with the most sincere and pitiful entreaty:

“por favor, Caballero, tengo hambre, estoy pobre, necessito monedas para…” (Please, Sir, I’m hungry and poor, and need money for…”

Excited at the solution unfolding before me, I interrupted him in mid-plea: “Quere una pizza?!?”  (You want a pizza?!?)  He was stunned.  “…yes?” he replied tentatively.   Quick as a bunny I shoved a pizza at him and he seemed to envelope it with his entire upper body, like he was afraid someone might grab it away from him.  And in a flash he was off at a trot, laughing with glee.  Actually, we were both laughing. It was a great moment.

I got home and opened the pizza that was left. It was a limp, damp, food-ish mess covered with olive-like bits and limp mushrooms. No meat.  Of any kind.  Just dead vegetables and cheese.

I hope my buddy got the pepperoni (from the US!).  But the satisfaction of “beating” the two for one deal made mine tolerable.

I’m off to look at rental properties this afternoon, with hopes of finding something with a small garage.  I’m told that’s a hopeless quest.  Santiago (at least inside the city) is very European in that respect – the dwellings tend to be small and garage-less. Most folks live in apartments, and that may be where we are headed – but not without a good hard try at finding a house.

Now it is time to go down to breakfast, where I’ll pretend that the chopped up tomato on my scrambled eggs is really salsa.  Hope you are all well, safe and happy.  More news will come when there’s more to say — mr

Edit:  subsequent to this, I found Tobasco sauce in a grocery store…whoohoo!  problem solved…



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4 responses to “Chow in Chile…

  1. This was an amusing and fun piece to read through! I did not become bored with the narrative, and found myself smiling while I remembered a similar situation I had found myself in while riding through Honduras. And yes….I’ll bet the food in Chile is quite bland. It’s sad isn’t it? I’m keeping my thoughts tuned toward the hopefulness of finding a single family home w/garage for you. Some times miracles DO happen! Good luck!

  2. Caroline

    What a scream! Geez its hard to believe you cant get spicy food in Chile of all places…

    • The English language misleads us again, yes? “Chile” and chili are as different as wait and weight, or reign and rain. Which must make it damned hard to learn to speak English…

      The addendum to this post is that I went out the next night and found one of the best Sushi restaurants I’ve ever eaten at, anywhere. And the food was indeed…spicy as all get out! And I found a zesty little red chili sauce in an enormous supermarket that now rides to breakfast in my pocket — problem solved!

  3. ah-em …. ‘we’ could learn to cook I suppose ! It’s a lost cause for me, but I seem to remember YOU can whip up a meal. Now the trick … to find a Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Safeway or ?????

    great story rafferty.

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