Among the many bibliographical gaps in our culture, there's the one about food and Chilean identity, no doubt. This issue has deserved only one book, Eugenio Pereira's "Apuntes para la historia de la cocina chilena", published in 1943. But contemporary investigators may add some more to the debate, with the work of historian Isabel Cruz (now working on the Colonial times gastronomy) and anthropologist and writer Sonia Montecino.
It was her own passion for gastronomy that led Sonia Montecino to inmerse herself into the world of cooking and the deep relation this activity has with the cultural differences one can see among the country's different regions. She started a whole class about it at the Universidad de Chile: "Culinary Anthropology".
There we work the theorical aspects, but we also get to cook once a month. It's not just any food. There are twenty to thirty students, and each one of them must prepare a dish that has some relation to him/herself. The nicest thing is that when the class is over, the students keep on cooking. I think that we have started a sort of tradition.
Because of these classes, Sonia started with an investigation project in which she got to compare different regional gastronomies, later dividing them in three large zones. The first zone is the one of Chile's "first region" (Primera Region), "a cultural border where you find yourself with the frontiers to Peru and Bolivia, and where it still remains the culture of the saltpetre era which also had its own tradition". The "central zone" would also have lots of combinations and crossovers, and goes from the Aconcagua Valley down to the city of Talca. Lastly, Chile's Tenth Region, the one with Valdivia and Osorno as its main cities, is crossed "by the whole German and French immigrant traditions, but combined with native cultures such as the Huilliche and Mapuche. To that, you have to add the Spaniard influence", explains the professor.
The techniques for the preparation and consumption of the food are also issues that concern Sonia Montecino, and which have become part of her investigation.
"These two areas contain deep significances for those involved, and also from an anthropological point of view". In each of them, the investigator finds connecting threads. About the techniques, one finds preparations based on the use of stones as stoves. At the North, the one most used is the Calapurca, for a typical soup; at the Central Zone one finds the combination of tomatoes, peppers and onion known as "chancho en piedra". At the Southern zone of the country, we find the "curanto", a combination of seafood cooked right inside a hole made in the ground.
About the way of consuming these foods, Montecino looks for a way to "read the identity elements in every meal", so she chooses food that may have a festive aspect; not the ones you have on a daily basis. These are the foods with a collective significance. And in that group you certainly have the "ceviche" (raw fish) and the "picante" at the North; the "empanada", "pastel de choclo" and "humitas" (these last two, based on the corn) at the Central Zone: and the "cazuelas", the "valdiviano" and the "San Juan estofado" at the South.
You are what you eat
One of the main conclussions of Montecino's studies has been that each zone separetes very clearly not just gastronomy preferences with their typiacl foods, but also variations on race and social classes.
There's a style of cooking that characterizes every zone. In the case of the North, this style defines a national identity: their "ceviche" is different from the Peruvian one, and their "picante" is different from the one you find in Bolivia. These are subtle differences indeed, but have an important significance.
At the Central Zone, food may even define the social classes:
—For instance, the "aji" is something completely optional among the middle and high classes; but you will always find it among the lower class, which also prepares it in a different way. There's like a prejudice against what's spicy, the smell of onion or garlic. That comes from a very French tradition, more than from the Spaniard.
At the South, you find race distinctions:
—The luche and the cochayuyo are associated with what's indian or even poor. It's the food of the "cholos", the way the Mapuches are called in cities like Osorno and Valdivia; a northern word, ironically. During the Colonial times, these two seaweeds were exclusively from the natives, but the Spaniards began using it to replace meat during Fridays, when the Catholic tradition prohibits pork and beef. So if there was no fish, they would eat cochayuyo. It was Lent food.
Another example can be found in the so called "San Juan estofado". This is a preparation "that crosses all social classes at the South, even though each one cooks it in a different way. It's based on smoked pork and must be prepared one day ahead. It used to be made with poultry, and now it's just cooked with chicken or turkey. The pieces of meat are served with layers of onion. The German tradition cooks it with dried plums or cherries, and that would have a class significance, since the poor are not supposed to tell the sweet from the sour.
Factors such as gender and age were also important for the gastronomy culture.
—Women eat less spicy than men, the same as children. When you start enjoying spicy food, it somehow means that you have began adulthood. There are several other elements such as these: men eat larger portions than women and they tend to eat more meat, no matter their physical work may be calmer than that of the women.
The other Chilean cuisine
To deny that Chilean cuisine is plain and poor, and demonstrate that there's a whole language and richness to our food is one of this anthropologist's main objectives. She is willing to criticize the superficiality that covers most of the related debate:
—All this new trend about the "new Chilean cuisine" has one big problem, and that is that it does not make a difference gastronomy from our typical meals. Because there is a difference in what you eat at home, or in a specific region or city. Gastronomy is a creation, a construction that has to do with a whole different sphere, connected to the concept of the restaurant.
The rescue of products but not of originary recipes is something that concerns Montecino: "You go to a restaurant and they offer you a 'quinoa souffle'. That's OK, but the quinoa made by the Aymaras is delicious, and that you do not find in any restaurant. Why not? Is the souffle better than the Aymara recipe? There's this whole French-like style of cooking that has always been so important for Chilean chefs, not giving any credit to the fact that a course that combines meat and mango, and which can be presented as ultra sophisticated, is really a typical recipe from (the city of) La Serena. Why won't they offer that?
Part of Montecino's investigation is collected on a book that will soon be edited by the Chilean Pre-Columbian Art Museum, under the title "La olla deleitosa" ("The joyful pot"), which is the same name given by the professor and writer to a pot that some archeologists found at the area of the Cajon del Maipo, near Santiago. Inside, one could find the untouched traces of a curanto made more than 3,000 years ago.
Paralell to this writing, Montecino has been working for years in the order and selection of a very large collection of recipes that have been published in different Chilean books since the 19th Century.
—Nobody has written anything about these books or who wrote them. In Bernardo Subercaseux's women's history book, there's not even a mention. And this was what most women were writing back then. These is a allucinating production that includes writers such as Marta Brunet. It is a tremendous effort that has not yet been valued. If all those now interested in Chilean cuisine really got hold of these books, they would find incredible recipes, all made with native products.