One of the best things about getting to travel is the opportunity to explore new foods. Whether you're headed down I-25 to New Mexico or venturing halfway around the world to Europe, Asia or Africa, tasting the local flavors is part of going on vacation. For me, this usually means searching around for exciting restaurants that feature regional cuisine. As deeply satisfying as this often is, it's always limited to one meal that simply appears from the kitchen. It is about the eating alone -- the consumption of the culture through food. Lost in the process is the experience.
For me, these meals are like photographs. Some of them truly are worthy of being enlarged, framed and mounted on the wall. Others are more like snapshots in an album. Either way, I don't know anything about the people who made these meals, what they talked about while they cooked them, or even how they did it. I know even less about what the chefs might make at home for themselves and their families, or what ordinary people in a particular place eat on a regular day or on a special occasion. I've had a lot of meals, but not too many food experiences.
Over the past eight years, I have had the good fortune to spend several summer weeks in the same town, with the same family, in Chile. As a regular visitor who's comfortable in the kitchen, I have gotten to learn about Chilean home cooking. Among the array of regional and national dishes, the big food parties they call asados are the best experiences that Chilean home cuisine has to offer.
Close to what we might think of as a big backyard barbecue, hosting an asado is essentially producing a feast. In Spanish, asado literally means "roasted," and a hot, outdoor fire is accordingly the star of any such event. A smorgasbord of small salads, fancy side dishes and plenty of drinks share the stage. Asados usually begin in the mid-afternoon, and most linger into the small hours of the morning as people graze and guzzle.
Although often held in celebration of an achievement, or to honor a friend or visitor, people frequently hold asados just to spend time with friends and family. Between cooking and eating there's plenty of time for catching up and storytelling. Many of the best stories have been told over a Pisco Sour, Chile's national cocktail. Made in both Chile and Peru by fermenting grape seeds, skins and stems, Pisco is pale yellow with a slightly fruity flavor evocative of a light tequila. To make a Pisco Sour, combine the liquor, juice from a few small lemons (think key limes, but yellow), sugar and a small amount of egg white (for a foamy top) in a cocktail shaker with some ice. Gently toss it about five times and then serve it up in a sugar-rimmed glass.
Meats destined for the fire get the least attention. In fact, in the little town we visit, the fire itself can often be the most creative part of the meal. Our home away from home is called San Pedro de Atacama. It's a small town of about 2,500 people set on an oasis in the middle of one of the world's driest deserts. Massive propane grills are unknown, and most people rig up old oil drums or simple stone pits for setting up the fire; cooking grates can be equally ad hoc.
What matters more is to fill the cooking surface with food. One of my hosts, Esteban Ferrer, cuts the spine out of a chicken, flattening it in the fire's center. Salted and laid over lemon slices, he surrounds the bird with three hunks of meat and a solid ring of small chorizos. At another asado, half of a fresh lamb gets a quick bath of beer before being sent to sizzle over the hot coals.
Back inside, the kitchen hums with conversation and chopping as the salads and side dishes stack up. Requisite is the classic ensalada chilena, or Chilean salad, a simple affair of sliced tomatoes and onions, salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar. Produce in town can be limited and irregular, but we work with everything we have, namely cabbage, lettuce, carrots, beets, bell peppers, cucumbers, hot peppers and fruits. In keeping with Chilean preference, each item is separately prepared, seasoned and plated according to each cook's recipe, providing the greatest opportunities for creativity and experimentation. Space soon becomes scarce as salads and finger foods fill the table.
Snacking, from beginning to end, is greatly encouraged. Asados are usually quite casual, especially here in San Pedro. Guests show up, leave and reappear throughout the afternoon and evening. The only real rule is to get plenty to eat and to have a good time. How's the food taste? Usually, delicious, but it really doesn't matter. These parties aren't about the food; asados are about the experience.
-- David Torres-Rouff
Headed to Chile? Planning to visit San Pedro de Atacama? Go to www.sanpedroatacama.cl. Follow the links to "Casas de Campo" to stay at Casa Grande, operated by my hosts. Maybe Esteban will throw you an asado.