The world over, cuisines have a traditional dish made for a celebration. A party, special occasion or simply just a gathering of friends and family is enough. Not all, but a few that strike my attention require the use of an earth oven. Using the most simple and primitive cooking instruments that have been around for millennia. The earth itself and of course the use of FIRE! Multiple sets of hands are needed in the preparation and even more mouths to eat it. The Caribbean has barbacoa, while Hawaii has the kalua. Native Americans on the Atlantic coast have the clam bake which closest resembles Curanto from the Chiloé archipelago.
I wanted to do nothing more on Chiloé than dive face first into a plate of Curanto. I’d read about this century old preparation in Chile’s southern archipelago. Gigantic mussels and clams, chorizo, chunks of pork and chicken, potatoes and chapalele. Land and sea combine in the harmonic Curanto. The wafts of steam got my motor running, while my mouth salivated and my eyes went large as the top came off. I had one thing left to do. Eat and Curanto wasn’t for the feint of stomach.
I’ll start from the beginning.
We were returning from an early morning tour to see the penguins around the Islotes de Peñihuil Natural Monument and in dire need of lunch. In search of Curanto, we found the small unsuspecting road that led us to the tiny seafaring town of Quetalmahue. Slowly, we drove up and down the road through town as if scoping out a robbery. A gentleman waved us over and simply said ‘Curanto’. Ears perked, we pulled in down the quiet lane which brought us to a barn-like building on the water. They had just began.
The fire had burned down and the rocks glowed in the shallow pit. Crates of shellfish made their appearance. Mammoth mussels and clams from the waters twenty steps away were dumped onto the rocks first. An immediate sizzle and aroma enveloped the shack. Chorizo was next along with large chunks of pork and chicken. Potatoes followed and the first layer of nalca was applied. Nalca is Chilean giant rhubarb. A Jurassic looking plant that grows rampant in southern Chile. Used as a lid of sorts, it traps in the steam. A glutinous potato dumpling, chapalele is placed around the nalca before another layer is added. In the days of old this was then covered in earth to truly seal the treasures beneath, but now a heat resistant tarp was laid over with rocks along the edges.
~ Curanto is really more of a cooking method than a recipe for a dish ~
Curanto meaning ‘stony ground’ stems from the Choño people. An early hunting, fishing and gathering culture of the Chiloé archipelago. They worked with what was around them as all chefs should. It is a festive meal that took time and was more laborious to create. An event or spectacle rather than just a meal. Curanto generally has very similar ingredients, but can vary slightly from place to place. Milcao a potato pancake is another common addition that I didn’t see, but ultimately it consists of what’s on hand and local. It’s hard to go wrong when keeping to this simple philosophy. Local and fresh.
~ There’s something so primal about this kind of cooking ~
Covered from our watchful eyes for an hour or so, it all steams together, flavours intermingling. We walked away as the incubating rocks performed their magic. As the saying goes, “A watched pot never boils”, so why not watch the ocean from the balcony of the restaurant. My anticipation and hunger rose. I took a seat while the ubiquitous bread and pebre (Chilean style salsa spiced with merkén) was brought over to hold me at bay. Then, we got the wave. Time for the unveiling.
The tarp removed, geysers of steam shot through the nalca enveloping the shed in a perfumed cloud. Nalca wilted and slightly discoloured, the ladies gathered around removing the chapalele before getting to the goods below. Chicken, potatoes, then pork and chorizo. The mussels and clams were the last to go, but not before sneaking a few right off the rocks as a bit of a sneak peek. Slightly smoky with an almost paté-ish texture. They were not only delicious, but easily the largest mussels I’ve ever eaten.
Returning to our table, the Curanto was on its way. A comfortable amount for two on each plate, this mountain of food would be no easy feat. I stared in astonishment contemplating where to start, while it stared back as if in challenge. Layered on the plate in a similar fashion to the cooking process, I just dove in. A mussel, bite of chorizo, then a clam and shred of chicken. It was a blissful experience. Everything tender and juicy, I inevitably slowed my pace as I dug deeper. I scaled the mountain, or brought it down. However you look at it, I only left behind one of the two chapalele. Not my favourite potato preparation I’ve consumed with its doughy glutinous texture, but I gave it a fair trial.
I leaned back with a bulge in my stomach and a smile on my face. It was a bit of a struggle to not only get myself to the car, but to not pull over in a food induced coma. I hoped for an experience such as this. Implanted in my memory amongst my other incredible food experiences around the world, I personally think this is an absolute must for any travelling chef or foodie.
‘Curanto en olla’ or curanto in a pot can be found on many menus, however none compare to having the whole experience done traditionally from start to finish. The smell of the earth and ocean on the sea breeze frolic with the sound of waves kissing the shore. The senses should all be stimulated. The view, environment and company are just as important as the meal itself here. With a plate, you get a taste of an ancient cuisine and culture. A look into how they lived and how sharing a meal is always at the core of human tradition.
For more information on Chiloé, check out my other post here – 3 Days on Chiloe
Would you travel for this one of a kind food experience? Let me know below!