I booked a week in Chiloé, an island off of the lake region of Chile, and was concerned that it might have been too much time to dedicate to the island. But after arriving in Ancud and getting a rundown by the host in the hostel of all the things to do on the island, my itinerary for the week filled up quickly. One of the unexpected treats of Chiloé was curanto, a traditional dish that I got the opportunity to both prepare and taste.
Curanto is an ultimate meat-lover dish of mussels, clams, pork, chicken, sausage, potatoes, and bread. Or, put another way, a gout sufferer’s nightmare. It’s cooked with hot stones in a hole in the ground, without any seasoning.
The hostel introduced me to Luis and the other friendly people at El Meson Chilote, one of the only restaurants that cooks the curanto the pure, traditional way and does it year round. I think. Disclaimer: my entire time spent with El Meson Chilote was in Spanish, and since I had an estimated 40% comprehension rate, a lot of things went straight over my head and some might just be slightly wrong.
To begin with, we went to a secluded beach to pick the nalca leaves that are used to cover the curanto (at first I thought that Luis, our guide, was saying “narco,” but upon plugging that into the translator app in my phone, figured out pretty quickly that it was not the case).
The nalca is a Chilean rhubarb that grows all throughout the area. It is used for the curanto because it can withstand high temperatures, adds flavor to the food, and a third reason that I didn’t quite pick up and could only interpret to be that the nalca doesn’t explode. We went to the beach specifically to get the nalca because beach-side nalca allegedly added some sea-infused flavor.
Luis hacked off around 12 leaves, and we carried them back to the van. They’re pretty big!
Back at the restaurant, he showed us the hoyo (hole) of the curanto al hoyo. While we were out picking the leaves, they had already lit a fire with the stones to heat them up. Luis quickly picked out all of the wood, and then began the preparation process.
First, he poured in 3 buckets of seafood, clams and mussels. Then potatoes, chicken, pork, sausage, and finally pieces of bread. All a very quick process, completed in less than 2 minutes!
As a last step, Luis covered the pile with the leaves that we had picked, and then put pieces of earth – champa? – on top to keep the steam from escaping. Voila, done! And now we waited for it to cook.
During the wait, we were given drinks (I think of pisco mixed with juice from the nalca, but I’m not exactly sure. Probably should have ascertained before I drank it).
Luis gave us an explanation of curanto and its history. All in Spanish. I caught some things but not a lot, which killed me because I’m the weirdo that takes detailed notes on all of the tours. But here’s a shot at some curanto history and background that may or may not be true:
Curanto dates back to almost 7,000 years ago, and is a pre-historic food developed by the Chono people of Chiloe island. We know this because a 10,100-year-old (maybe, I’m not completely confident with numbers) petrified curanto was found with the same nalca leaves and seafood.
Originally, curanto consisted of just seafood. But 5,000 years later, the Chono people mixed with the Mapuche on the mainland, and they started cultivating potatoes, which were added to the mix. All of the other ingredients came even later:
Bread – 200 years ago
Meat (chicken, pork) – 500 years ago
Potatoes – 2,000 years ago
Seafood – almost 7,000 years ago
Unfortunately, vegetables never got added to the mix, unlike the cozido of the Azores.
An hour and a half passed by quickly (or, you know, not, if you were trying desperately to hang on to and interpret every word), and soon the curanto was almost done. I asked Luis how he knew, and he said it was a mixture of three things: checking the temperature of the dirt layer, looking at the water droplets that have formed on the dirt due to condensation, and intuition.
The unraveling process:
And the feast that we were waiting for!
I didn’t need to understand Spanish to enjoy the curanto, though I do wish I could have understood more of the history ofChiloé that Luis explained, since it would have made a great introduction to the area. Regardless, it was altogether a wonderful meal and a great treat. Afterwards, I did have to skip dinner, load up on fruits, and do an extended workout session. But worth it!