Slightly feverish and perhaps hallucinating just a little, I wandered around Puerto Natales looking for a place to warm up (it's Chilean Patagonia: cold) and have lunch. I was walking along the main street, and nothing was moving me. Then I spotted a funky red building. The homey look of the place and its name, Raices de Chiloe, appealed: Chiloe is an island off the southern coast, home to 400 different types of potato; genetic evidence indicates that over 90% of the world's potatoes originated in this relatively tiny place.
A sign outside mentioned that curanto was available (it was Saturday, and I'm guessing that as with pozole and menudo at Hispanic places in Chicago, curanto is a weekend food for the same reason: it takes time to make).
In The South American Table, Maria Baez Kijac explains that the indigenous Mapuche "prepared the curanto (a clambake-like feast), which is a Mapuche word for 'stony ground.' The most primitive way of preparing a curanto consisted of digging a pit in the ground, which was then lined with hot rocks and layered with the fruits of the sea and a few potatoes. After the Spanish came, new foods, such as sausages, chicken, and pork were added…broth is served in cups."
The curanto I had at Raices de Chiloe included a kind of potato-flour fritter, mussels, clams, sausage, a hot dog-type wiener, pork chop, chicken leg, and potato. There was also a sheet of cooked dough (seen in picture) that was kind of a mystery to me, but it added to variety. Broth was on the side.
The meat in this dish (excepting the hot dog, which was not good) was spectacular, perfectly done. I'm guessing the pork and chicken were braised (with the liquid perhaps reused in broth) and that the seafood was baked. I doubt there was a pit in the back (I peeked around but didn't see one), but perhaps like seafood that's been baked in a pit, the mussels and clams were quite dry. I used the broth to moisten them up. Kijac mentioned that some believe the broth is the best part, and it was delicious.
I actually was not extremely hungry when I walked in Raices de Chiloe, but I ate just about all of this dish, which ran about $15US. Although it's traditionally mostly fish and seafood, the best parts in this version of curanto were animal-based.
Seasoning throughout was mild, though this dish was preceded by pancito (bread rolls) and a salsa that added a little action to the eating. I believe this kind of salsa, called pebre, is more or less standard on Chilean restaurant tables: it's got a little heat, tomatoes, green peppers and oregano.
Basically, though, this seafood mélange leverages simple and fresh ingredients, without a lot of kitchen manipulation, and it was very satisfying.
Raices de Chiloe
Blanco Encalada 450, Puerto Natales, Chile
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