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One dances, the other shucks

So Liz and I are walking through Santiago’s produce and fruit market, Vega, when she pulls me over to this stall fronted with giant garlic in purple netting and celery stalks as thick as Kobe Bryant’s thighs and mounds of onions and lima beans and Jerusalem artichokes.

Photos by David Lansing

Photos by David Lansing

We stand in front of a woman seated before a basket of green beans. “Watch her,” Liz whispers without taking her eyes off the woman. The woman selects a bean, puts it in some gizmo sitting on her lap, and quickly juliennes the bean into a plastic bag. Then she grabs another bean and repeats the process. Over and over again. The gizmo the woman is using is a wondrously simple tool, something like a cross between a potato peeler and a hard boiled egg slicer. Still, can you imagine having to julienne green beans by hand all day long?

But the woman behind her, wearing the baseball cap, has an even worse job. She’s peeling celery. One stalk at a time. I’m not kidding you. I guess all I can say is that if you’re going to sit in front of a produce stall all day long selling habas verdes and apio, you might as well keep busy doing something.

While I was taking this photo of the two women, this little gypsy-like ensemble of musicians suddenly appeared out of nowhere playing guitars and the accordion. I have a sweet spot for the accordion. I love it, whether it’s in Mexican ranchera music or zydeco. Everything sounds better with an accordionist.

But that wasn’t all. Suddenly this red-haired woman wearing a bright red bolero jacket and white shoes starting dancing in the middle of the mercado. Even more amazing, she was balancing a wine bottle on her head and had a Chilean flag stuck in her ponytail. It was so bizarre that I kept looking around expecting some film crew to be shooting the whole thing. Surely she had to be an actress and this was some crazy scene in a Moulin Rouge-like Chilean musical.

She was dancing the cueca, Chile’s national dance. And that was interesting too because the cueca is like a courtship dance. You have a guy who dances in a way to evoke a rooster looking to get some from a hen in heat. According to a book I read, “The woman approaches the man with elegance and flirtatiousness, then she slightly lifts her skirt with her left hand and gracefully moving her handkerchief with the right, she flees from the man.”

Which, as you can see from this photo, is exactly what this woman with the wine bottle on her head was doing except she did not have a partner in the dance.

Unless…you don’t suppose she saw me as the rooster, do you?

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The other day I was walking around downtown Santiago and got really, really hungry so I stopped in at Fuente Alemana, the funky German-inspired sandwich shop Liz Caskey wrote about earlier (see the Friday blog), to get a lomito completo, which is a big ol’ honkin’ pork sandwich topped with what looks like about a quart of mayo and a half-dozen mashed avocados. I’m kidding—kind of—it probably has only a cup or two of mayo on it and no more than four avocados.

As I’ve said, in Chile, mayo is one of the major food groups (and sugar is another). Anyway, one of the Nurse Jackie-looking waitresses served me my sandwich with a tall schop, which is a Chilean draft beer, and asked me if I wanted any aji oro with it.

Si, claro,” I told her.

She put her hands on her hips and raised a singleeyebrow at me. Was I sure?

Porqué no?”

She fanned her mouth as if it were on fire. They’re very hot, she said.

This is funny. Chileans have no idea what hot food tastes like. And these pickled yellow peppers—the aji oro—are nothing. Still, when I piled them on top of my lomito, the waitresses in their Bavarian Hausfrau outfits gathered around to stare at me like they were expecting the top of my head to explode at any minute.

Bags of merken next to aji oro at the Vega Mercado in Santiago. Photo by David Lansing.

Bags of merken next to aji oro at the Vega Mercado in Santiago. Photo by David Lansing.

Here’s the thing: Chileans don’t do spices. There are two reasons for this: One, they have an incredible abundance of wonderful fruit and produce and their philosophy is to serve it as simply as possible (the two exceptions being, of course, that everything tastes better with mayo and avocado on it). Secondly, Chileans have always equated spicy food with the underclass. In their minds, the only people who put garlic or chilies in their food are peasants. Because, you know, it’s kind of stinky and everything.

The best example of this may be the Chilean spice called merken. Merken has been around forever. It’s something that comes from Chile’s indigenous people, the Mapuche. The Mapuche dry 6-inch long smoked red chili peppersand then grind them up with coriander seeds in a stone mortar until everything has the look and consistency of paprika and then add salt, cilantro seeds, and oregano to it. This is like the key spice for Mapuche and they use it to season meats, potatoes—whatever.

It’s fabulous. But until a few years ago, you’d never go into a nice Santiago restaurant and find a dish with merken in it. Because, you see, it was a spice of the peasants. And who wanted that?

But that’s changed. I’ve had merken in a couple of very nice dishes here—in soups, on chicken—but my favorite was a lovely dish of pureed potatoes seasoned with merken. Perfection.

Now if they’d just start using a little more garlic with the chicken….

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I was going to talk about one of my favorite Chilean discoveries, the lomito sandwich, but I got into so much hot water yesterday for suggesting that all the ex-pat women in Santiago stay because of the bread and not the men (my favorite comment came from an outraged Chilean male calling himself “the dude” who wrote that he hopes I enjoy my stay in Chile “because when you go back to your country, you’ll realize that you’re still the virgin loser that left there in the first place”–how thoughtful, dude!) that I was afraid I’d also mess up writing about the lomito. So just to cover my virginal loser ass, I asked culinary expert Liz Caskey to address the subject.

In addition to leading culinary and wine tours of Chile, Liz writes a blog, Eat Wine, which is about all things wine and food in South America. So read what Liz has to say about lomitos (thank you, Liz!) and then check out her blog as she shares her favorite pours from Malbec to Carmenere and Tannat, food & wine pairing secrets, recipes, thematic tastings, visits with culinary artisans, muses, rants, and stories about the sweet life in South America.

Take an informal poll among Chileans of what food they crave when they are in country, out-of-country, any time of the day, and in many cases, would call the “unofficial” national dish of Chile, and they will tell you: El Lomito. This towering, mammoth pork sandwich is Chile’s most ubiquitous and beloved “fast food”. Chileans scarf them down enthusiastically and round-the-clock at joints throughout the country. Its popularity can only be compared to the hamburger in the US.

Lomito sandwich photo by Francisco Ramirez

Lomito sandwich photo by Francisco Ramirez

Of all the places in Chile that serve them up, none compare to Fuente Alemana off of Santiago’s central Plaza Italia. After all, they were born here. Even after 60 years of business, El Lomito is still king. In fact, I would say if you want to really understand classic Chilean cuisine, you must visit Fuente Alemana on your visit to the capital. Generation after generation has been well fed at this Santiago institution. It’s comfort food in the form of a sandwich.

Enter off the deafening Alameda, grab a stool around the U-shaped counter, and let the veteran waitresses/cooks, clad in white like nurses, attend to your every sandwich need. Not a whole lot has changed since opening. It’s pretty simple. Solo diners and friends come to scarf down 6-inch high sandwiches and frosty mugs of schop, draft beer. As you wait, the sizzle of the griddle and the waft of meat slowly browning, primes your taste buds for what’s to come. Tranquilo, sandwich heaven is only five minutes away. Observe as the cooks rhythmically assemble these gargantuan sandwiches from the central grill while taking orders, clearing plates, serving beer, and never missing a beat. An art? Absolutely—those ladies have been doing it for 30-odd years.

The Siri Brothers, who founded Fuente Alemana, are responsible for El Lomito’s creation. The sandwich is perhaps the greatest gastronomic homage paid to Chile’s Germanic roots. Marinated pork loin is slow- braised for six hours with aromatics and secret spices. The pork is hand-shaved into paper-thin slices that are kept warm in a flavored broth (the owner would not divulge exact ingredients) until use.

A typical lomito is layered with half a pound of pork on a freshly baked bun (6-inches wide). From there, order your fixings directly with the counter ladies. Try some of the perennial favorites: melted mantecoso cheese, mashed “green gold” (aka avocado), thick slices of fresh tomato, tangy sauerkraut, copious amounts of homemade mayo (a national passion). If you just want the italiano, you’ll get the lomito plus avocado-tomato-mayo. If you get the works, completo, they’ll serve you all of the above.

Do not, and I repeat, do not, attempt to eat this with your hands. The natural laws of the universe, err…gravity, make this an impossible feat. Use a fork and knife to tuck into this baby. If it seems peculiar that a simple sandwich could induce a nationwide fever, just lay into one and by the end you’ll understand. And probably either lick the plate clean or order another. Yes, it’s that good. –Liz Caskey

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Note: Between now and January 1, we’re going to write about ten of our favorite things (in no particular order), from 2009.

The Tamale Lady of Sayulita. Photo by David Lansing.

The Tamale Lady of Sayulita. Photo by David Lansing.

“You may not be able to tell at first that tamales are being cooked except perhaps by the steamy windows—but later on a rich, subtle smell of corn husks, masa, and good lard, all intermingled, fills the house and gets stronger as the cooking nears completion. After their allotted time, you open one up to see if it is done. You heave a sigh of relief as a soft, spongy, white tamal rolls quite easily from the husk. It could so easily have been heavy and damp.

“Tamales are made for an occasion, and an occasion is made of making them. Men, women, children, and servants all join in with good humor, shredding, chopping, stirring, and cleaning the husks until all is prepared. Then everyone converges to form a real assembly line, some daubing the husks with masa while others add the filing, fold, and stack into the steamer. And there is nothing quite as delicious as that first tamal, straight from the steamer.”

–Diana Kennedy, The Cuisines of Mexico

I think the first time I came across The Tamale Lady was Christmas Day two or three years ago. I was lounging, half-asleep, on a beach chair in front of Don Pedro’s in Sayulita, Nayarit. This particular stretch of sand is one of the most remarkable in the world (although it never seems to pop up on those ubiquitous “best beaches” magazine lists) for not only is the water warm and cerulean, the breezes mild, the palm trees shady, but you can sit here all day and eat and drink just about anything you want without ever having to move, from little spears of charcoal-grilled shrimp to a fermented pineapple drink called tepache served in a hollowed-out pineapple husk. Sit there long enough and you will hear the calls and whistles for roasted peanuts, jelly beans, chicharrón, mango chunks, torta Mexicana, elote con queso, coconut ice cream, and plastic cups brimming with spears of watermelon and jicama.

But do not be tempted. Wait. Until you see a short, gray-haired woman with large hoop earrings carrying a blue plastic pail: The Tamale Lady. The first time I tasted her wares was serendipitous. I had been waiting for the woman who usually came around with the tin pail selling tortas. But she was sick that day or maybe just taking the day off and suddenly it was almost two o’clock and I was starving. So when I saw the little woman, dressed all in white, calling out, “Tamals!” I flagged her down, figuring I’d buy a single tamale to appease my hunger while waiting for something more substantial.

In her bucket were pork tamales, tamales de pollo, and, because it was Christmas, she said, tamales dulces—the sweet corn tamales from Jalisco flavored with piloncillo (cones of raw sugar), anise seeds, and cinnamon. Curious, I got one of those.

What a revelation! The kernels of corn inside the moist husks were as sweet as if they had just been harvested that morning (which it probably had) and the piloncillo and spices gave it a Christmas-y cookie flavoring. Licking my fingers, I ran down the beach after her.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but that is the most delicious tamale I’ve ever had.” She smiled.

Mi tamales de carne de cerdo son también muy buenos,” she said.

So I tried the pork tamale. And then the chicken. Each was more remarkable than the last.

“¿Cómo te llamas?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “La señora tamal.” The Tamale Lady. Who I hope will be on the beach again this Christmas selling her amazing tamales dulces—another one of my favorite things.

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