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Merquén Spice from the South of Chile

Chilean Style Stew featuring Merquen Spice

Chilean Style Stew featuring Merquen Spice

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Just when you think you’ve tasted all the new things you can in a place, someone comes up with a dish that surprises you. My friend, ‘Guest Chef’ Juan Echervarria treated me to a delicious chicken stew dish that featured ‘merquén’ spice, primarily made from a powdered form of a red chili that grows in the south of Chile. It’s a spice blend of indigenous origin that’s used in a lot of traditional dishes.(Chile isn’t named after chilis, by the way, in case you were wondering.) Even the canned peas tasted delicious in this dish. Merquén isn’t a hot and spicy spice, but rather a combination of spices, and I detected a smoky flavour overall.

He also made what they call ‘Chilean Salad’ which is plate of sliced peeled tomatoes, onions and cilantro. Cilantro is the only herb they use for cooking in Chile. Oregano grows very well in the north of Chile in the altiplano regions, but it isn’t featured in many dishes at all. Italian restaurants seem to be the only ones who really use it,on pizzas and in Italian pasta sauces.

Another thing that fascinates me is how Chileans make rice. It’s absolutely delicious, and they don’t think it’s anything special. First they fry the rice in a big pot, usually with a bit of garlic, some sliced carrot, sometimes a bit of green pepper. Then they add boiling water. They put the whole pot on top of a flat toaster grill (they make toast on the stove top, using a flat metal mesh covered metal square with a handle, and it looks just like the toaster grills sometimes used for making toast over the fire while camping in Canada). They let it boil and steam to cook under a lid, adding salt, an sometimes a bay leaf or bouillon for extra flavoring.

If I hadn’t seen the rice made this way in three different homes, I would have chalked it up to one family’s way of doing things. But some ‘expat’ friends and I were talking one Sunday afternoon and realized it is a widespread thing. When asked, most Chileans don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s just the normal way you make rice.

I think it’s often the things people don’t even realize are different than other places that visitors use to characterize a culture.

Wonder what routinely happens in Canadian kitchens that visitors would call ‘typically Canadian’?

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