Some people warned us that Chile was not known for its cuisine. That never bothered me because I love to cook and I assumed that since the US imports much of its fruit and vegetables from Chile, I would have plenty of spectacular raw ingredients. Not a big deal if we didn’t eat out as much.
When we came to visit before moving, we visited a grocery store to get a sense for food in Chile. On the surface, nothing felt all that different. The supermarket felt like any US suburban grocery store with a larger variety of sausages and no Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
My first real grocery shopping trip surprised me. The first time I had to gather specific items into a cart, I got overwhelmed and went home. Really. This is not typical for me. I love grocery stores. On my second visit, I came home with the most random assortment of things: hotdogs, oranges, and Diet Coke (which is sold by the single can and incredibly expensive). My third visit, I went to the store with a specific meal in mind thinking that would help. It didn’t. I couldn’t find half of the ingredients and those that I did find were twice the price I was used to paying in the US.
For instnce, they don’t have Bacon. They have Procuitto, which I’ve now purchased four different brands in an attempt to replace bacon in the mornings. The kids stare at these small salty little bits of pork and wonder what it might be. American Cheese is something we had prepared to leave behind. But, isn’t American Cheese just a bland cheese that melts easily? Who knew those characteristics were so unique? Vanilla yogurt is another example of something we miss. In Chile, there is an entire isle in the grocery store- both sides- dedicated to yogurt variations but there is no simple vanilla yogurt.
And, I have my own issues. Chileans like instant coffee with warm milk. While I have found a somewhat decent brand of ground coffee (among an entire aisle of instant brands), Half-and-Half does not exist. In fact, they do not have any fresh milk of any kind. When I inquire about suggested alternatives for half-and-half specifically I get a lot of “condensed milk” suggestions or a powdered Nestle creamer. They do have something called Crema, which I went to first, but John describes it as ice cream for my coffee. I can only imagine how large I will get if I use this as an alternative. My latest attempt is to take a milk container and mix the crema with milk. I will continue to work on the ratios.
My other assumption, the raw ingredients piece, was wrong as well. Turns out that they export all the best fruits and vegetables to the US completely skipping grocery stores here. In Jumbo, the big supermarket (which really resembles a Target in almost every way) there is one small special case in the fresh fruit and vegetable area where they keep a small offering of high-quality fruit that is exported. You have to seek help from the person behind the counter and the additional cost is unbelievable (a $10 bunch of grapes). You would honestly think I was seeking fresh french truffles.
I have yet to find the organic free-range chicken. I think they would simply stare at me if I asked where I might find that in the supermarket. They do not have any market for organic foods here – let alone organic meat or chicken. In fact, the chicken all comes “con marinado” or with a salt marinade. It couldn’t possibly be less healthy.
The country that gave us Chilean Sea Bass doesn’t eat a lot of seafood that we would recognize. At Mercado Central, which is the fresh fish market in downtown Santiago, always noted as one of the top food markets in the world, has hundreds of stalls offering fresh seafood of all kinds but it is incredibly difficult to navigate. Often, we have purchased seafood only to realize it has gone bad when we get it home. They carry lots of odd crustaceans that I have no idea what to do with. I’m contemplating hiring a local chef to help guide me through the stalls to understand what I need to buy and from whom.
I sound terribly negative and discouraged. Frankly, I am. I refuse to give up just yet, but I’m humbled for sure. I’m convinced that by mastering spanish I will unlock the key to the other more nuanced stores and markets rather than relying exclusively on the Target-like grocery store. Now that it is summer, I’m also convinced that I need to stick with Ferias Libres or Farmers Markets for fresh fruit and vegetables.
But, in the meantime, any visitor is required to bring a handful of items from the US. Or, if you know of any way to import French cheese….. Thank goodness there is so much good wine.