Monday, January 2, 2012

Christmas in Santiago, Chile

Well, the weather outside was frightful (a hot 93 degrees fahrenheit), but the fire is so delightful (if by fire you mean the incredibly strong Christmas alcohol drinks that have a kick like fire water), and since we've no place to go (since everything is closed on Christmas)...

December 25, 2011 marked my 2nd year living in the southern hemisphere during Christmas time. For any European or North American, it's quite a change in culture, regardless of the country. In New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and other English speaking southern hemisphere countries, you'll still find the same Christmas music with all it's snow and winter references, playing in stores. Oddly enough, even in a Latin country like Chile, you'll hear the same music. We can chalk that up to a bit of cultural imperialism.

When you are an expat, living in a Spanish speaking country and having a poor overall comprehension of the language, it's easy to think that will all the culture and climate differences, it could be a tough time. But in great countries like Chile, you don't miss a beat. You still find all the festive cheer, the kind people, and christmas decorations any snowbird would be used to. And like every country, Chile puts it's own twist on the holiday traditions.

So here's a look at some of those with the focus on some of the excellent food Chile has to offer for the holidays.

Unlike many other countries like the United States, Christmas Eve is the more important time for families for the holiday. It's when all the relatives get together for a proper meal.

As I was alone in Santiago on Christmas eve, I used it as an excuse to have  less traditional "Christmas" meal, but still something distinctively Chilean.

So for dinner, it was Pastel de Choclo.

Pastel de Choclo:
Home Cookin': Pastel de Choclo with a corn and chicken salad, topped with candied almonds (Santiago, Chile)

The dish is popular throughout Chile, and is their unique version of an popular dish many know as "Sheppard's Pie". Consisting of a base of sauteed ground beef, onions, chicken and sliced hard boiled egg, the casserole is completed with a tasty corn batter topping that is sweet and silky like the tastiest corn cake or pudding you could ever have. For a quick an easy recipe to try it out, try this one.

Cola de Mono
Pan de Pasqua and Cola de Mono

The literal translation in English is "Monkey Tail". The name might not be as appealing when you factor in what is produced nearby a monkey's tail. But the drink is fantastic. A traditional Christmas drink, Cola de Mono is the equivalent to egg nog in many Anglo cultures as something you'll only find at Christmas time. I had heard much about the drink and was anxious to give it a try. As I didn't have it in me to actually cook and prepare the drink myself, I opted for a pre-made mixture that no self-respecting Chilean would ever subject themselves to. And it was still one of the best holiday drinks I've tasted.

Like any complex drink, each person preparing it can add their own twist. But the basics include milk, water, instant coffee grounds, cinnamon, vanilla, sometimes a fair amount of cloves, combined with any combination of liquors such as pisco, rum, or brandy.

Served cold and when drank, the end flavor is something like a White Russian. But due to the complexity of the flavors, it tastes more like a combination where the prevalent flavors would be Kahlua and Baileys Irish Cream.

And to eat for dessert with the Cola de Mono, a slice of Pan de Pasqua.

Pan de Pasqua:
Remember in the 1980's, when comics would make jokes about fruit cake and how it's the gift you get for someone at Christmas time you don't really like...since so few people in Anglo cultures actually like fruit cake? Well, if you have a Chilean friend living abroad, you can always re-gift your unwanted fruitcake to him or her...because Chileans devour the stuff. Every supermarket, every bakery is packed to the ceilings with Pan de Pasqua at Christmas time. And make no mistake: this isn't some special recipe that tastes different to what you've had in the UK or the USA. It's virtually the same thing, ranging in texture and consistency from somewhat (and I stress somewhat) fluffy to a hard round brick you could break a car window wish. It was nice to eat this year though, since it is the type of food that would elicit memories of a trip to grandma's house.

Chistmas Dinner: Roasted Turkey
Home Cookin': Christmas dinner - Turkey injected with a rum marinade with apples and prunes roasted into the meat, roasted garlic mashed potatoes and grren bean almondine (Santiago, Chile)

Even with my new found love for Cola de Mono, the headliner of Christmas Dinner came in the form of "pavo". While a portion of Americans pass on Turkey for Christmas due to the late November holiday of Thanksgiving featuring turkey, for many Chileans, Turkey is the main event. This year, I was blessed with having a wonderful girlfriend who changed her holiday travel schedule to return to Santiago early to spend Christmas day with me. And thanks to her loving mother, she arrived with the greatest gift you could give a food writer on Christmas: a roasted turkey, cooked to perfection.

Now I could have bought a turkey and prepared it myself. But the style I would have used would have been more along the lines of what I've done in the past as a more Anglocentric method. You all know the drill: clean the turkey cavity, stuff it with various items such as traditional stuffing, baste every so often, and serve.

But the style this year was such a pleasant surprise.

The uncooked meat was injected with enough rum to take down a college student, adding a richer flavor to the meat upon cooking and producing a much more flavorful au jous. Rather than relying on just the traditional stuffing of the cavity that I'm used to, prunes and apples were placed into the actual meat prior to cooking, infusing with the meat upon cooking. This is something I often do with every pork dish, especially with fruit, fresh rosemary and whole garlic cloves. But for eating turkey, this was a first for me. The result was a near perfect meal of the roasted turkey, served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and green bean almondine.

And for dessert, homemade pumpkin American contribution to the Christmas dinner.


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