WELL, IT'S NOT the fruit but the fish which is sensational in Chile. They eat fish like you've never tasted before. The cold Humboldt current washes its vast coastline, and is the source of thick, fat seabass, flaky-fleshed congrio (not a conger eel, though its long tail resembles one), meaty albacora (a white- fleshed tuna), colorados (pink-fleshed, salmon-sized fish) and reinettes (huge flat-fish).
The Pacific here is anything but pacific, the crashing breakers making it well-nigh impossible to swim. But the jagged rocks harbour strange and wondrous shellfish - giant spiny lobster, machos (tender little clams which turn pink when cooked), locos (the Chilean abalone), the weird pico roca and wonderful piures.
The pico roca is a rock-like shellfish sporting a beak (pico) like an owl's, and enclosing a fluff that looks like whipped egg white and tastes of crab. Even more weird is the piures (pee-you-rez), which is detached with difficulty from rocks many metres below sea level. It is a large, hairy-jacketed mollusc resembling a rook's nest, and it shoots a jet of sea water at you when you handle it (the smaller Californian ones are often known as Ocean Squirts). In Chile it is prized for the chewy nugget at its centre, much like a skinned red pepper. It is very much an acquired taste, with the intense flavour of iodine.
Probably the most modern and European of South American countries, Chile once derived its prosperity from copper and mineral resources, but moves into the 21st century as a major fruit exporter, wine-maker and fish farmer. Chile's resources have always been close to hand, with an abundant ocean and fertile plains watered by the melting snow from the Andean peaks, but it is only now, with considerable foreign investment, that it is surging forward.
Chile is geographically unique. Two-thirds of the country suffers a deeply inhospitable climate, its head in the rainless Atacama desert in the north, its toes frozen in the Arctic sea. It is never more than 120 miles wide along its 2,600 mile length, walled in by the towering Andes mountain chain. And even the habitable 800-mile stretch at its centre blows hot and cold.
The cold part is the south near Puerto Montt, as chilly and wet as the northerly Scottish islands, but here they've established a huge farmed salmon industry that serves Japan and the US.
The heat is in the north, as arid as Morocco's bare mountain-scapes. But thanks to new technology that has tapped the underground water tables, there has been a miraculous greening of the once dun-brown valleys. The northernmost Elque Valley is one such, owned by Guillermo Prohens. He and his two brothers farm three neighbouring valleys, watered by the melting summer snow flowing off the Andes.
But one year the snows didn't come. Guillermo, who trained as an engineer in his Italian homeland, decided to invest in drilling. Nothing was found in the valleys farmed by his brothers, but on his own land he hit water tables. With 300 cloudless days a year in Elque, the conditions were perfect for growing table grapes.
Now he meets the lucrative US and UK pre-Christmas market with his Seedless Thomson's year after year, and in fact he is Chile's most successful fruit-grower.
And the Chilean wine industry surges ahead. This should be no surprise, given the quality of the vines first planted here by French engineers, who also supervised the irrigation of the vineyards. And these Bordeaux grapes predate philloxera, the disease which wasted all Europe's grapes.
At various times the Chilean wine industry has gone into reverse. The government restricted expansion to check a growing alcoholism problem. Then the vineyards were broken up during well-meaning agrarian reforms of 1968 to 1973, the new owners having neither the funds nor the expertise to handle their newly- allotted shares. Now Chilean wines are the good-value, good-news option, challenging all other New World wines.
So Chile is a smart, modern country. There are certainly smart, modern restaurants in Santiago, the capital, and the smart customer quickly learns to choose fish and seafood. Probably prawns or crab or those little clams to start with, then a stew of congrio, the national dish, celebrated in verse by the poet Pablo Neruda; or grilled swordfish or seabass or dorado (sea bream), usually presented with creamy sauces or melting cheeses. When the raw ingredients taste so much of themselves, it is heresy to mess about with them.
But this is a restaurant eating. Don't the people have their own national cuisine? Perhaps not. In one of Santiago's major bookshops, the cookery shelves featured only two Chilean titles (one published in 1964), but there was a plethora of books in English, both American and British, many dealing with Italian, Chinese and Indian food.
The aspirational Chilean may not have much time for his roots, but there is a vigorous heartbeat of peasant cooking which simmers under the surface. The best place to start is Santiago's Central Market which is Dickensian in its vitality and energy. It was built in the 19th century in wrought iron, an imposing St Paul's Cathedral of a build-ing, enclosing abundant stalls for fruit and vegetables, skirted by a peripheral fish market like no other, a piscine museum where cobbled stones drip with melting ice.
The central area is a series of indoor cafes where you can eat plates of prawns sizzling in garlic oil, fried calamari, locos (abalone) with mayonnaise, steamed machos (pink-fleshed clams) and mussels the size of a baby's shoe.
Beyond the bus station and across a shallow, bubbling brown river, are the satellite markets. Here, under their low roofs, the people are eating less sophisticated fare; the cafes between the food stalls here are little more than counters with three stools, each one offering a single speciality.
It might be a soup or stew. The main ingredient will be beans, or potatoes, or corn, or vegetables, or offal such as tripe. The predominant colour of the all dishes is red, matching the ballooning bags of paprikas and chilli powders on sale at every stall.
Chile grows no fewer than 200 kinds of potato. Not surprising since the tuber originates in Chile's northern neighbour, Peru. If Chileans look forward to tomorrow, Peru looks back on a long and distinguished past in matters of food. There is a notable distinction between the cooking of Lima, the capital, where superb fish dishes abound, and the mountainous inland areas inhabited by the majority of the Andinos, which is based on such staples as corn and potatoes.
One hundred kinds of potato were cultivated on Peru's high altiplano as long ago as 2,500 BC, according to Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, who is the leading authority on Latin-American cooking.
In Ecuador (which in Spanish means equator, on which it sits) the potato continues to be an essential part of the diet. Their thin potato soup, locro, is renowned, and often served with avocado slices, as are llapingachos, delicious potato cakes made with onions and cheese.
Ecuador is also notable for its marinated raw fish dish, ceviches, which unusually is made with the juice of bitter Seville oranges rather than limes.
Colombia, that deeply-troubled country that seems perennially on the verge of anarchy, offers some of the most varied cooking in the whole of South America, in part due to its range of climates: rain forest, mountain highland, and both high plains and low coastal plains which have borders on two oceans.
The indigenous Indians of Colombia, the Chibcha, have a long and proud history of working gold, and their skills are reflected in the elegance and refinement of their cooking. In coastal reg-ions you will find delicate fish stews made with coconut milk; and in the highlands, rich meat and chicken stews.
The potato has an important role here too; the classic national soup, ajiaco de pollo bogotano, utilises at least two kinds of potato, a floury one which breaks up to thicken it, and the other a waxy one that retains its texture.
Over the page we offer a selection of recipes from the Andean countries, extracted from Elisa-beth Lambert Ortiz's gripping new paperback, The Flavours of Latin America, Recipes and Stories. It has just been published by the Latin American Bureau for pounds 8.99. Independent On Sunday readers can obtain a copy for only pounds 7.99 (which includes postage and packing). Write to, or telephone, the Latin American Bureau, 1 Amwell Street, London EC1R (0171 278 2829), quoting the Independent on Sunday special offer.
Chilli, garlic and coriander are essential ingredients in Andean cooking, as they are in other parts of South America. But it is their passion for the potato, more than anything, which sets the Andinos apart from other Latin-American nations. The potato (known as the papa), has been cultivated in the high Andes of what is now Peru and Bolivia for at least 4,500 years, perhaps even 10,000 years, says Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz.
It was the Indians who first grasped the principles of freeze-drying several millennia before it was rediscovered in the 20th century. Potatoes were left out at night to freeze; then, when they thawed in the heat of the morning sun, the juice was squeezed out of them. This was repeated until the potatoes were dried out. They could then be stored out of season and rehydrated with water when required. These are known as chunos.
In the Andean countries there are many varieties of potato, large and very small, purple-skinned, yellow-fleshed and white, both waxy and floury. Each is respected for its specific properties; floury potatoes to thicken soups and stews, to make into potato cakes; waxy, firm potatoes for dishes with seafood, or in salads.
AJIACO DE POLLO
From Colombia, serves 6
1.6kg/312lb chicken, cut into serving pieces
2 large onions, finely chopped
8 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 litres/312 pints chicken stock
12 whole, peeled papas criollas, if available (otherwise 6 new potatoes)
salt, freshly ground pepper
2 ears corn, each cut into 3 slices
3 tablespoons capers
150ml/5fl oz double cream
Heat the butter in a heavy casserole and saute the chicken pieces with the onions until the chicken is golden on both sides. Add the thinly sliced potatoes and the stock, cover, and cook over a very low heat until the chicken is about half done and the potatoes are beginning to disintegrate (about 25 minutes). Add the papas criollas or the new potatoes and continue cooking until both the chicken and potatoes are tender. With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken pieces and potatoes from the casserole and keep warm. Work the stock through a sieve. It will have been thickened by the sliced potatoes. Return the stock to the casserole, season to taste with salt and pepper, add the chicken and potatoes, the corn and capers, and simmer for 5 minutes longer. Add the cream and continue cooking just long enough to heat it through. Serve in deep soup plates with Aji de Huevo (avocado sauce) on the side.
AJI DE HUEVO
This is another migrant recipe that evolved when the Chibcha of Colombia used to export their exquisite gold work to Mexico. It is interesting to see how this one differs from the original Mexican recipe and from the next-door Venezuelan one. The name of the sauce really defies translation. Aji is the South American word for hot pepper. Huevo is egg. Literally one gets "hot pepper of egg". Avocado sauce is a better way of describing it.
1 large avocado, stoned and mashed
1 hard-boiled egg yolk, mashed
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh green coriander
1 fresh hot green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 finely chopped spring onion, using both white and green parts
1 hard-boiled egg white, finely chopped
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
salt, freshly ground pepper
Mix the avocado and egg yolk thoroughly. Add all the rest of the ingredients and mix well.
CHUPE DE CONGRIO
From Chile, serves 6
1 kg/2lb 4oz cod fillets, cut into 6 pieces, as a substitute for congrio (conger eel)
60ml/4 tablespoons butter or oil
2 onions, finely chopped
2 slices while bread, soaked and squeezed out
12 teaspoon hot paprika
salt, freshly ground pepper
12 teaspoon oregano, crumbled
6 cooked potatoes
250ml/8fl oz milk
3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced (optional)
Heat the butter or oil in a casserole, add the onions and saute them until they are golden. Add the bread, hot paprika, salt, pepper and oregano and cook, stirring to mix, for a few minutes. Pour in the milk, stir to mix, cover the casserole and cook over low heat until the mixture forms a thick sauce. Arrange the fish fillets on the sauce, cover and cook until the fish is done. Check to see that the mixture is not drying out and add a little more milk if necessary. Serve surrounded with the potatoes and eggs (if using).
POTATOES WITH WALNUT, CHEESE AND CHILLI SAUCE
From Peru, serves 6
125ml/4fl oz corn or peanut oil
1 medium onion cut into very thick slices
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4-6 small fresh hot red chillies, seeded and chopped
100g/4oz walnut pieces
100g/4oz curd or Ricotta cheese
225ml/8fl oz whole milk
900g/2lb medium-sized potatoes, or 6 of uniform size
6 hard-boiled eggs, halved lengthways
12 pitted black olives
strips of red pepper, preferably pimiento, to garnish
In a small heavy saucepan heat the oil, add the onion and garlic and cook over a very low heat until the onion slices are golden. Transfer the oil, onion, garlic, chillies, walnuts and cheese to a food processor. Pour in the milk, season with salt to taste and process to a smooth sauce, the consistency of a heavy mayonnaise.
Meanwhile cook, peel and halve the potatoes lengthways. Have ready a large, warmed oval platter. Line the platter with lettuce leaves and arrange the potatoes, cut side down, on top of the lettuce. Mask the potatoes with the sauce. Arrange the eggs, cut side up, among the potatoes in a decorative pattern. Garnish with the black olives and red pepper strips. Serve as a first course, or the main course for a light luncheon or supper.
RABALO GUISADO EN LECHE DE COCO
BASS IN COCONUT MILK
From Colombia, serves 6
5 fillets bass or any non-oily, firm-fleshed white fish
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 sweet green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 jalapeno chilli, seeded and chopped
2 green plantains, peeled and cut into 1cm/12in slices
350ml/12fl oz coconut milk made from creamed coconut
120ml/4fl oz thick coconut milk
45g/3 tablespoons coriander leaves, chopped (optional)
In a large frying pan heat the olive oil and fry the fish until it is lightly golden on both sides. Lift out and set aside. In the oil remaining in the pan add the onion, green pepper, chilli and tomatoes and saute until the vegetables are tender. Add the plantains, season with salt and pour in the thin coconut milk. Simmer over a low heat for 15 minutes or until the plantains are tender. Add the fish and cook for five to eight minutes, or until the fish is cooked. Pour in the thick coconut milk and sprinkle with the coriander, if desired.
LOMO DE CERDO DULCE
SWEET LOIN OF PORK
From Peru, serves 6-8
1.4kg/3lb piece of boneless pork loin
250ml/8fl oz dry white wine
120ml/4fl oz milk
4 tablespoons butter, melted
14 teaspoon ground cinnamon
115g/4oz seedless raisins
2 tablespoons soft breadcrumbs
Season the pork with the sugar and salt and put it into a flameproof casserole. Pour in the wine, cover and marinate for 12 hours. At the end of the time add the melted butter, clove, cinnamon and raisins. Sprinkle in the breadcrumbs and cook, covered, on top of the stove for about two and a half hours, or until the pork is tender. If desired, the pork can be roasted in the oven in which case it should be basted every hour or so.
BUDIN DE ZAPALLO
From Ecuador, serves 6
700g/1lb 8oz pumpkin, preferably West Indian type
12 teaspoon ground cinnamon
225g/8oz soft light brown sugar
125ml/4 fl oz double cream
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons rum
3 large eggs, well beaten
Peel and cube the pumpkin and put into a saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the pumpkin is tender (about 15 minutes). Drain and add the cinnamon, sugar, cream, one tablespoon of the butter and the rum. Mash the pumpkin and cook it over a low heat until the sugar has melted and the mixture is well blended and fairly firm. Cool and beat in the eggs. Turn into an 8-cup souffle dish greased with the remaining tablespoon of butter. Bake in a preheated 350F/180C/Gas 4 oven for one hour or until firm. Serve warm from the souffle dish with whipped or sour cream.Reuse content