Palta y pan: Eating is not just eating for Chileans

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.

– James Michener

Food. It’s a part of culture, a part of learning about a new place. But when I landed here, it was my nightmare, my cast-iron chain holding me back. I had no idea how to properly express who, what, why, when, how.

When I fill out forms about myself for school, programs and travel, I check the “dietary restrictions” box. It automatically, it casts me away into a sub-category of humans who lack the luxury of digging into each and every comida – food – they see being sold on the streets.

I’m a vegan. Soy vegana. As a vegan, I don’t eat anything that comes from an animal. No milk, egg, meat, fish, butter. No dairy. No meat. No fish. No honey. No whey. The list goes on. As I said before: small fear coming into study abroad.

The stereotypical Latin American meal is piled high with meats, fish, and dairy. In Chile, after extensive pre-travel research, I prepared myself for pounds and pounds of bag-slapping mayonaisse. 

“What am I going to eat? Everyone just eats, like, meat in South America.”

Over and over and over again, I’d been laughed at, hugged and pitied. My adventure to South America, to Chile, would need some serious luck.

One of my first times ordering in Spanish, my friend helped (her studies here equal my studies in England or Scotland: she’s fluent in Spanish) my pitiful struggle and after a few laughs, I was served un plato vegeteriano. 

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Friends and I at “El Mercado Central” in Santiago. This once open-air market is famous for it’s fish markets. It is a top rated spot by Lonely Planet and many other travel companies.

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El plato vegeteriano: basically, a deconstructed salad. Different segments included brocolli, palta, tomato, water chesnuts and lettuce

But truly, I feared what my host family would say or think. With mediocre Spanish skills, I did not want to offend them in anyway.

But aquí in Viña, we are not a meat-centered city, we are not Texas de Brazil. In fact, living on such a large and important port, pescado is a large part of the diet.

But even larger, is palta y pan. Dissimilar to the United States’ obsession with Ramen and Mac N’ Cheese, I think I’ve seen this combination at every single meal. Bread more so than avocado.

Here in Viña, my host madre and I do not go to the local super markets to buy bags and bags of Wonderbread. There are Panderias with fresh bread of all shapes and sizes.

But eating is not just eating for Chileans.

It’s a time to separate from your work, your business, school and play. It’s a time to commence a brief period of reconnection with your family.

In Chile, there are more or less 4 meals: desayuno (breakfast), almuerzo (lunch), once (tea time/snack), and cena (dinner).

Lunch is the biggest meal for most Chileans and is usually eaten around 2-3 p.m. in the afternoon. It can go on for several hours if the family has time and many take siestas – naps – afterwards. More common, is a tito (#chileanslang). 

#chileanslang: Tito. A small nap, similar to what a baby might take. A tito can be taken on the bus on the way to school, before going out with your friends, or on the beach. Read: 40 winks, catnap.

Once is relaxed and usually considered dinner. It’s something light later in the day usually around 8-9 p.m. Typical once meal? Palta y pan. In my host family house, I usually have more of a meal type dish. I always have coffee.

Chileans typically eat something small late in the night before going out. Here, night life doesn’t start until around midnight.

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Eating out at a bar. Typical late-night food included fried carbohydrates, eggs, completos, bread, and depending on location fish.

Eating together, eating slowly definitely takes some adjusting. Phones are not commonly kept at the table, or if they are present, they’re not touched. Calls and texts are ignored, but if the phone is used, a “permiso” is quickly uttered before usage.

At the same time, people here don’t seem to eat-on-the-go as much. It’s a much more “take your time” atmosphere.

In the states, we are traveling to and from classes all week,  and I’m used to eating while working, or waiting until all my work is done to go eat. The schedule for classes is split so that there is a time to eat lunch. Many come home from classes to eat with their families.

Getting my dose of Japanese in Chile with wakame (seaweed salad) and edamamé.

Getting my dose of Japanese in Chile with wakame (seaweed salad) and edamamé.

So then, what do I eat once I sit down at the table?

With my host family, I’ve eaten everything from torta de verduras (literally, a cake made from vegetables) to sopa, choclo y mote, and various mixtures of rice, beans and vegetables. Oh, and soy protein.

I’m blessed with a host mother who stays at home all day, loves to cook — luckily for me — loves to cook new things. She has been experimenting and designing dishes just for me which is insanely generous and nice.

One day, I was treated to a backed zucchini filled with a spinach and soy mixture. #delicious.

But fair warning: food here lacks spice. My host mom serves all my meals with a bottle of aji pebre alongside it. It’s no Sriracha sauce, but it’s good. It’s a condiment served at meal times in bowls, at restaurants, on meats, chips…by the spoonful.

palta – avocado

pan – bread

soy vegana – I’m a vegan

choclo y mote – A dish comprised of mixed/mashed corn, cornmeal, vegetables, flour and sometimes meat

pescado – fish

Panderias – bakeries

permiso – excuse me, pardon me, with permission (polite)

torta de verduras – usually made with eggs, think of a quiche without the egg or crust, and instead all vegetables.

sopa – soup

When it's time for lunch or dinner, I'm served an enesalada chilena alongside my main dish, a desconstructed salad usually made up of tomatoes, onions, salt and vinegar.

When it’s time for lunch or dinner, I’m served an enesalada chilena alongside my main dish, a desconstructed salad usually made up of tomatoes, onions, salt and vinegar.

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