Everyone I meet in Chile asks me how I like the food. Honestly, I think it's a little too early for me to have an informed opinion. That said, I've noticed some things that I think might be useful to Gringos who are coming here for the first time.
A favorite sport among Gringo expats is to bitch about the food. They say it lacks imagination, and that there's not enough variety.
At first, I made the mistake of trying to order things that 'sounded' or 'looked' good based on what I know I like in the US. This is a trap. It creates an expectation in your mind of what you ordered should taste like. Then when the food comes, it's nothing like what you expected - and why should it be? It's made with different ingredients, cooked in different ways, the seasonings are different. The list goes on. After a few weeks of missed expectations, you'll find yourself craving McDonalds just so you can order something and KNOW what it's going to taste like before it goes in your face.
Once I stopped trying to meet my expectations and ordered with a more open mind, the food became more enjoyable. This is good advice for anyone traveling anywhere, expat or not. If you avoid thinking that 'Food in Country A is better than Country B', then I think you'll have more fun in general.
Chile is famous as a fruit and vegetable exporter, and for good reason. it's freaking delicious. I don't know if it's because I'm eating food closer to its' source, but the fruit tastes amazing here. Vegetables are crisper and have more flavor. If you're a vegetarian or just a big produce fan in general, you'll love it here. That said, the standard Chilean diet is overwhelmingly bread and meat - so if you dine out a lot, get ready to pay extra to order salads and vegetable sides. In most restaurants, an entree consists of a protein and starch.
Salads do not include fatty US dressings, which is awesome, in my opinion. They are usually dressed with just fresh lemon juice and olive oil. Salads also tend to be a little different than the usual bowl of US mixed greens with a few tossed in veggies. There's usually a leafy base with separated piles of vegetables. So you might have a separate little pile of palm hearts, a pile of tomatoes, and a pile of onions. Delicious. I have yet to see cheese, nuts, or fruits in a Chilean salad.
As an unapologetic carnivore, this bugged me at first. I would try to order steak, but what I wanted to eat kept getting lost in translation. Turns out, the cuts of meat they use in Chile are completely different from the cuts we use in the US. Chileans cut the beef in order to avoid fat and bones, preferring a leaner cut of meat. This blog does an amazing job of explaining the differences (and Chilean food in general), and since then I've gotten the hang of it.
Also, meat here just tastes different. It's hard to explain. There's a different flavor to the meat (especially chicken) that I can't quite put my finger on. Several locals have told me that at one point, farmers used fish meal (I guess that's a thing) as feed here, and because of that Chilenos complained their meat and eggs tasted like fish. Not sure on the validity of that, could be an urban legend. That said, I'd imagine the food the animals are taking in down here is different from what we use as feed in the US, and likely the cause of the different flavor.
Oh dear lord do they eat a lot of bread. The standard everyday bread is a small loaf that pulls apart into 4 mini-baguettes. Slightly toasty on the outside, but soft on the inside, you can't throw a rock in Chile without hitting an amazing bakery. Slap some ham and cheese inside one of those and you've got breakfast. Bread's good.
I'm going to save this for another article. Suffice it to say, the seafood is plenty and delicious. There are several types of seafood here we don't even have names for, mostly shellfish.
The Peruvian food here is amazing. This could again take up an entire article all on it's own. The ceviche (different than the Mexican inspired stuff we have at home) and lomo saltado (a sort of Chinese-y beef stir fry on rice and freaking french fries) is amazing and not to be missed.
What Things Aren't Good?
Instant coffee (nescafe) is standard in Chile. In 80% of the situations where coffee is served, you will be offered nescafe. It's acrid and bitter, without much flavor. There are more expensive instant coffee brands here that are marginally better, but they all have something acidic about them that irritates my stomach. Which should be hilarious as all get out for anyone who knows me, since I drink gallons of the standard drip stuff without breaking a sweat.
Interestingly, just about every restaurant in the country has an espresso machine, and most Chilenos enjoy a coffee after a meal. The espresso drinks are delicious and more or less in line with what you'd order at a Starbucks in the US. The most popular espresso drink by far is the Cortado, which is a 1:1 ratio of milk to espresso, similar to a cafe au lait. I understand this is common in other countries, but I'd never heard of it in the states.
The standard breakfast here is bread, palta (avocado), ham, cheese and maybe some yogurt. If you want something sweet, you can get a media luna, which is a glazed croissant. Bacon exists here, but they don't cook it in strips like we do and use it as a garnish - It's chopped fine and occasionally mixed in with some eggs. Pancakes? French Toast? Forget it. I understand there have been some attempts to bring breakfast civilization to Chilean life in the form of Gringo-themed restaurants, but they have a tendency to fail. Chilenos just don't care about breakfast as much as we do. Thanks to some friends, I have found a little cafe that does a once monthly brunch where I can get my French Toast on.
Everyone I've talked to who's spent time in Chile told me it was nigh impossible to find peanut butter. I haven't had any trouble. Maybe it's a new brand, but it's from Argentina and I find it just about everywhere. It's no Laura Scudders', but it's not terrible. Just the usual, standard issue sugary stuff.
Ugh. Having grown up near Chicago, I have strong opinions about pizza. The pizza here begins its pile of fail at the crust. They use a crappy flatbread similar to a pita, which is just awful and wrong. Then they don't cook it long enough to give any crunch or texture to the crust. Sauce is a watery awful mess, and the cheese situation is abysmal. There are basically three kinds of cheese here in Chile, and they're all mediocre. If the pizza place actually uses mozzarella, you're lucky. Toppings are weird and there's too many of them. Mayonnaise and corn don't go on pizza, I don't care what you try and tell me. There is one Pizza place in Valparaiso that has great crust, a wood-fired oven, and is the genuine article. Otherwise, I would avoid pizza. Save yourself the heartache.
Again, Chicago dog 4 lyfe. The Chilean hot dog variation is the Completo: a foot long that is often topped by palta (avocado), tomato, mayonnaise, or sauerkraut. It's rank. Also, they pile on so much stuff that you have to eat it with a fork and knife. Sacrilege!
Non-existant. On a 10 scale, a Chilenos' idea of spicy is Mayonnaise. Finding Sriracha sauce was like finding the Ark of the Covenant. Then it got stolen. The Chilean food gods were probably smiting me for making fun of Completos.