Though not exactly world-renown for its cuisine, Chile takes great pride in their most popular foods and beverages. Mate, the completo and the Patagonian cordero were among my favorites. Everyone in Chile drinks mate. Maybe even everyone in South America. I’ve strolled through artisan and produce markets in which every other vendor is clutching a small cup with a straw poking out of it. I’ve taken part in the almost ceremonial practice of serving mate around a campfire that is a four-hour hike from the nearest road. I’ve sipped mate while watching the sunrise from a mirador (lookout) with a view of the most active volcano in South America. In fact, the first time I tasted mate, was on a small boat on the fjords of central Chile in the company of the boat’s captain and crew.
Yerba mate is a bitter, loose leaf tea that is consumed at any hour of the day by seemingly every single inhabitant of Chile. The leaves and stems of the yerba mate plant are dried and chopped up and sold by the kilo. The powdery substance is poured into a special mate cup with hot water is added. The resulting tea is sipped from the cup by a bombilla (a metal straw that has small holes or perforation on one end to filter out the leaf particulate). Mate contains a compound very similar to caffeine which, based on the fact that only terrible instant coffee is widely available in Chile, would be incentive enough for anyone to give mate a try. You can find real coffee in Chile in larger stores but it is typically very expensive and rather poor quality.
Mate is an Argentine product. But from the huasos (horsemen) of Chilean Patagonia to the sophisticated Santiguinos, (slang term for residents of Chile’s capitol city) Chileans have throughly integrated mate into their culture. Many claim that mate gives more of an energy boost than coffee but without the subsequent crash. In my own experience, it did a fine job of sustaining my caffeine dependence on the all-too-frequent days when I couldn’t get my hands on some decent coffee. I like drinking mate best in afternoon when that after-lunch-nap-time feeling kicks in.
With almost ceremonial stipulations, drinking mate with a group is as much a pick-me-up as it is a social interaction. Once the dried leaves and straw are in the cup and water is heated and stored in a thermos, one person will act as a server and be responsible for adding water to the cup and passing it around. When the cup is empty, it is handed back to the server who refills it and hands it to the next person. Furthermore, there is a certain mate etiquette that must be followed. Only the server is allowed to touch the straw. It is considered bad manners to touch the straw if you are on the receiving end; you will never see a Chilean do this. Interestingly, when my study abroad group was first introduced to mate (and had not yet been taught the rules) almost every person held the cup in one hand and the straw in the other as they drank.
It is also frowned upon to hold the cup for a long time before you drink the tea and hand it back to the server. Both of these rules exist due to the fact that the more the mate leaves are agitated and the longer they steep in the water the more flavor is extracted from them. If you are moving the straw or nursing your cup for too long it will seem as though you are selfishly trying to get the tea as strong as you can. Since the cup is shared, the faster the leaves get ‘washed out’ the fewer the number of people get to enjoy a sip of tea.
Another quirk of the mate ‘ceremony’ is that you only say thank you when you don’t want anymore. When you have had enough mate and not longer want to be included in the circulation of the cup, as you hand the cup back to the server, if you think they did a good job of serving you would say, “Muchas gracias, que era un buen mate.” Thank you very much, that was a good mate. This was another interesting difference between American and Chilean cultures; I feel compelled to say thank you whenever someone hands something to me. I quickly learned to adapt when I was left out of the rotation after just one cup.
There are mate cups of all shapes and sized in every gift shop in Chile. From the traditional hollowed out gourd to any combination of wood, plastic and aluminum, mate cups make a much more interesting souvenir than a t-shirt or magnet. I even saw one mate cup made out of the hoof of a cow. Though I didn’t spring for that conversation starter, many of my friends and family now have their own mate cups and bombillos and are invited to come over and enjoy a bit of the two kilos of mate that I brought home with me.
Just as Chicago has deep dish pizza and Philadelphia has cheese steaks, Chile has completos. In Spanish ‘completo’ means ‘full’ and that is exactly what you will be after you eat Chile’s famously gluttonous hotdog. The standard completo contains avocado, (or palta as Chileans call them) mayonnaise, chopped tomatoes and cheese in vast quantities. Completos can also include sauerkraut, chilies, and several different types of sauces. The first completo I ate was in a town called Puerto Varas from a fast-food style restaurant called Bocaditos in the middle of the night. We’d just gotten back from a two-week backpacking trip and were ravenous for something not cooked over a backpacking stove and some city lights.
Bocaditos was the only place open and fit the bill perfectly. Loud music poured out of the shallow store front and we had to squint in the glare of the fluorescent lights. One by one we made our way up to the counter with our pre-scripted orders in halting Spanish: “¿Completo y papas fritas, por favor?” and hoped we would not be asked any further questions. When my completo arrived it was twice the size of your average American hotdog and had enough mayonnaise on top to choke a horse. In light of the fact that it wasn’t beans and rice, it was one of the most delicious foods I’d ever eaten.
My group was very fortunate to not only enjoy the feast that is the Patagonian cordero, we were also able to watch and be involved in the exhaustive process. We were two days and maybe 15 hours of hiking into the Cochamo circuit. We stopped and camped for a few days on the land of a man named Augusto. His property was large and beautiful and accessible only by foot or horse.
Cordero means ‘lamb’ in Spanish and in this traditional Chilean meal, a lamb is cooked over an open fire and shared among many people. On the morning that our feast was scheduled to take place, those with the stomach for it walked up to Augusto’s house to witness the slaughtering and butchering of the selected lamb. The process, though a bit gruesome, was very swift and painless for the animal. It was eye-opening for many in my group. When we think of meat we imagine it packaged up on grocery store shelves, not about the living, breathing animal that it once was. But when you live in a region as remote as Augusto’s place, the closest grocery store is actually across the border in Argentina and a full day’s ride or walk away. If you want meat, you must raise and butcher it yourself.
After the excitement of the slaughter, the lamb hung for a few hours before it was skewered with narrow tree limbs and set up near the fire. It required almost constant attention after that. Between Augusto’s dogs lurking about hoping for the chance to snag a chunk of our dinner and turning the meat at regular intervals so that it would cook evenly, everyone in my group took a turn to help.
As the meat cooked, we chopped up massive amounts of garlic and parsley and oregano to make an Argentine sauce called chimichurri and applied it by the bowl full to the meat. Once it was done and we were all ravenous from the smell, Augusto brought down salad and a mountain of sopapillas — pieces of fried dough — and the feasting began. We cut chunks of meat from the bone and passed them around. We warmed the sopapillias over the fire and ate mostly with our hands, going back for seconds and thirds. We ate until we hurt and there was nothing left but bones for the all-too-eager dogs and the sun had set behind the towering mountains.